Authors: D.J. Palmer
Dr. Wilcox turned a page in her notebook, flipping back to refresh her memory.
“Right,” she said. “The other woman.”
“I mean, I was dealing with a lot back then,” Nina said. “Glen missing, losing his job, the lies, and the affair on top of it all. It was too much for me to process. But I was worried, you know?”
“About becoming a
“That's right,” Nina said. “I knew the police were going to investigate the lead, but I didn't know when. And I was also thinking about the childrenâWhat would happen if word got back to them about their dad's affair before I knew the whole story?”
Dr. Wilcox nodded with understanding.
“So I thought I needed to get some answers for myself. I didn't want to wait around for someone else, and I was tired of feeling like a victim. I needed to
something, take some action of my own. In the back of my mind I was hoping that it was much ado about nothing.”
“So what did you do?”
“I went looking for Teresa,” Nina said, making it sound like the only logical choice. “I had to learn everything I could about the girl with strawberry hair, even if I got to her before the police did.”
Nina did not know if Dr. Wilcox had ever been to Carson, if she was at all familiar with the town of eight thousand residents. It was
typical of New Hampshire in that it was old (founded in the 1700s), steeped in history, and lacking in diversity. To the east lay Bear Brook State Park, and off to the west rambled the Connecticut River, the longest in New England. Main Street in Carson followed the rise of a gently sloping hill, and quaint brick buildings lined the street, with stores on the ground level and apartments above.
Nina still couldn't wrap her mind around the deceit. She and Glen had shared everythingâa bed, a home, the children. How could she love someone heart and soul and not know him at the same time? He had a history of his own before they became a couple. Naturally, he shared stories from his past, but there were lots of years to cover and surely plenty of details omitted. And how would Nina know what was left out? They didn't grow up together, weren't high school sweethearts. In fact, they had met long after college. They were fully realized people when they started dating. People with pasts.
Before Glen, Nina had done what many twentysomethings did: worked her job, gone to the gym, and hung out with friends on weekends. The bar scene was fun until it wasn't, and that shift happened almost overnight.
What had become of Jerry Collins, the college boyfriend whose heart she'd broken, or Keith Middleton, the man who had broken hers? The only thing Nina knew for certain was that her jealousy had grown as her friends paired off, got engaged, married, and became young mothers while she stayed stuck on the scene. One by one her social circle had grown smaller, like a herd being culled by some super-predator. Nina went out on dates, fix-ups with friends of friends, hoping to find that connection, believing in her heart she'd know when it was right. But it was never right.
She had worried about being too selective. Maybe something was wrong with her, not with all of her dates. When Nina suffered these thoughts, she reminded herself of the real issue: she gravitated toward a particular type. She dated broken guys, much like the people she saw each day in her social work practice. Men with issues she could unravel
with the same delight she took in working with clients. They were mysteries, enigmas for her to figure out. Secrets to unlock.
The older Nina got, the more dismal her prospects seemed to become. She'd tried her best to break the wounded bird habit, but the younger men she dated were too immature, and the older ones too set in their ways. She had too many bad coffee dates that felt like job interviews. Some of the men were overly desperate; others too detached. Throughout it all, she avoided online dating. She wanted her romance to have a fairy-tale elementâa story she could tell her kids, with glee in her voice and delight in her eyes.
I was at the grocery store, and I dropped a jar of pasta sauce on the floor. It shattered on the ground with a massive crash. I swear it looked like a murder scene, blood spilled everywhere. I was so embarrassed, but then your fatherâwell, before he was your dadâstepped in front of me and acted like he was the one who dropped the pasta sauce. He even called for the manager and helped him clean up the mess, apologizing over and over for being such a klutz. Then we went out for coffee andâ
But no, that wasn't Nina's story. It wasn't her story at all.
It was a friend from social work school in Boston, where Nina had moved after venturing away from Nebraska, who had made her see things differently.
“Face it, your grocery store scenario isn't going to happen,” she had said one evening years back, when wine was all about the buzz and calorie counting didn't matter.
Not only did this friend know about Nina's fantasy, but more embarrassing, she knew about the time Nina had held a jar of pasta sauce in her hand and contemplated dropping it because a cute guy was standing in the same aisle. Nina's best chance of meeting somebody was through a setup, which was, her friend opined, the same thing as online dating.
“Just cast a wider net. What can it hurt?”
Nina created her online dating profile that very night. When she was done, she made a single click to see her first set of matches. There he
was, the fourth profile on the page, handsome as a movie cowboy. She read his profile carefully. Thank goodness he didn't list “long walks on the beach” and “cuddling by the fire” as personal interests. He sounded confident and sincere and was genuinely funny. He wrote something about being an aspiring surfer and having a good relationship with his mother, which in hindsight turned out to be not entirely accurate. He loved life, he wrote. Enjoyed the outdoors. Travel! Restaurants! He kept it vague, saying he'd rather chat in person than write it all out. Nina noticed he had rendered some of the letters in his “Interests” section in bold type, and realized after careful study that it spelled out the words “NICE GUY.”
Nina sent him a message through the website. She got the internet through AOL, and transmissions back then were slow and spotty, but he messaged her back quickly. That was all it took. Her first and only attempt at online dating had resulted in an eighteen-year marriage, two kids, a house in Seabury, and her in Carson, standing in front of the Muddy Moose searching for a woman who had apparently captured her husband's heart.
“The Muddy Moose was a rustic bar,” Nina explained to Dr. Wilcox.
To set the scene, she described what she'd seen back thenâthe heads of various animals mounted on the wall, including that of a large moose (presumably their namesake) hanging over the bar. There was a group of people, all men, she recalled, chatting pleasantly at the long wooden bar, hunched over their beverages. The place still smelled of last night's fun mixed with powerful cleansers. The jukebox was on, playing something by the Rolling Stones.
“I didn't see Teresa there,” Nina said. “But I was hoping maybe she was in the kitchen, or she might be coming in for a later shift.”
“How did being there make you feel?”
“Empty,” Nina said. “I felt absolutely nothing. But somehow I knew, even if I didn't get a chance to confront Teresa, that the thought of her was far, far worse in my mind than it would be in real life. In real life,
she was justÂ â¦ just a waitress at the Muddy Moose. I'm not sure that makes sense, but I remember feeling utterly depleted, like all the anger left me in one great rush.”
“Did you leave?”
“Not right away, no. I went up to the bartender with my phone in hand,” Nina said. “He was thin as a marsh reed, I remember that clearly. I also remember trying to keep my emotions in check, but my heart was beating crazy fast.”
Dr. Wilcox leaned forward in her chair.
“I showed him the pictureânot the make-out session, the other oneâand asked if he knew the woman, and if she worked there, and he said, yeah, that's Teresa Mitchell. I asked if I could talk to her, but he told me she was gone.”
“Like gone, gone. Like she'd up and left. Four weeks ago, he said.”
“Four weeks before Glen disappeared?”
“That's right. He told me she'd done that sort of thing before, usually with some guy she'd met, but she always came back. But this time she didn't tell anybody where she was going, didn't say when or if she planned to return. She was just gone.”
“Did the police look for her?”
“They looked, sure. I don't know how hard, but they couldn't find her. They eventually released her picture to the local press, which is how everyone found out about Glen's affair.
“I asked the bartender if he knew anything about Teresa and Glen, as a couple. He said they hung out together, were friendly for sure, but he didn't know anything more. Anyway, I wasn't about to go grilling the staff for information about my husband's extramarital exploits. What did it matter anyway? The details weren't going to do me any good.”
“Probably not,” Dr. Wilcox agreed.
“So I went outside. Really I wanted to bum a cigarette even though I hadn't had one in ages, but instead I just looked at the picture again. I took it all inâher clothes, how she carried herself in that photo,
everythingâshe was just the opposite of me, so different from anybody I would have thought Glen would have been attracted to. It made the affair somehow seem worse, like Glen had sought her out because she was nothing like me. And the strange thing was, I wasn't sure I cared anymore.”
“Why was that? I thought you were worried about the kids, how people would react?”
Nina had an answer at the ready, because she'd analyzed that one long ago.
“I guess when you shine light into the dark,” she said, “you see it for what it really is, and it loses all power over you.”
The Davis Family Center was located in a neocolonial home with white clapboard siding, green shutters, and three dormer windows poking out of the roof. The middle window looked into Nina's cramped new office, where she had a desk, a phone, and a metal filing cabinet. There was no room for comfy chairs like those in Dr. Wilcox's office, but all personnel had access to the conference room on the first floor. Nina didn't have to handle billing, client intake, or a host of other duties, so she could focus on helping those in need to “achieve the maximum each day and successfully face life's challenges”âthe center's motto.
She had a bossâsort ofâa pleasant woman in her sixties named Rona Wosk, who had an affable smile, rosy cheeks, and a hands-off approach to management. Rona described her role as a facilitator. She would assign cases to Nina, help push through bureaucratic obstacles, and request updated status reports. For the most part though, Nina would be a solo operator.
Rona gave Nina a brief tour of the office, helped get her set up with opening-day paperwork, and introduced her to the other therapists, social workers, and mental health professionals who used the center as a home base for their private practices.
As a collective, The Davis Family Center offered a full spectrum of services, including family counseling, divorce and coparenting support, LGBT support, and substance abuse assessment.
Nina spent the morning meeting and greeting, signing documents, getting her email running on the company-provided laptop, and reading through various company policies from the human resources department (a department of one). Rona assured Nina she'd be given a decent-size caseload, one that wouldn't be overwhelming, and her ramp-up period would be a gentle one.
On her way out, Rona hesitated in the doorway of Nina's new office. “We're so happy to have you with us and we have all the confidence in the world in you.” She paused, a thoughtful look coming to her face. “We know you've been through your own ordeal, but trust me when I say you'll do just fine here.”
Nina thanked Rona for the encouraging words and hoped her faith wasn't misplaced. She had religiously completed her required forty hours of continuing education each year, doing some of her coursework at home and some in seminars and workshops. It wasn't like she hadn't thought about her profession since Maggie was born, but still, she did feel a bit like the Tin Man in need of oil.
She spent most of the morning refamiliarizing herself with New Hampshire family law. Rona had told Nina her first assignment would be a custody case, helping a judge make the determination for two children, ten-year-old Chloe Cooper and her eight-year-old brother, Chase. It would be her job to get to know the parents as well as the children. She had to understand the issues within the marriage, analyze the behaviors, and ultimately determine, in a neutral and objective way, what was in the best interests of the childrenâa finding that would profoundly influence the judge's decision.
“You'll do just fine,” Nina told herself with a long exhale, echoing Rona's words, though wishing she shared her confidence.
Near midday, Nina found her way to the bathroom, where she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She had tried not to feel self-conscious or fiddle with her hair during the day, not to tug, twist, and shape it into the original style Simon had suggested. If only Simon had gushed the way she had expected, she'd be quite happy with this new
look. Even a tepid reaction would have been preferable to what had happened.
Nina returned to her desk, trying to put the haircut and last night's disaster out of her mind. She skipped lunch to continue her reading on New Hampshire custody law.
At a quarter to two, her cell phone rang. It was Simon. Her heart sank a bit. He was probably calling to talk about what happenedâhopefully to apologize, at least for part of the catastrophe.
It had all started when she had walked in the front door. She had expected a lot of oohing, aahing, and fawning over her new “do,” which she had gotten from Maggie and Connor, who both loved the fresh look. Maggie was especially complimentary and thought her mother looked younger and even more beautifulâher exact words. But Simon's reaction was completely unexpected. It seemed he could focus only on the sides, which weren't swept forward and angled, and the bangs, which weren't cut straight. It was different than the photograph he'd shown her, and he'd even fetched the magazine to drive home his point. He had said it was no big deal, that she looked great no matter what.
Nina had been crushed, and later, when they were in bed together and the children asleep, she told him that his reaction had been hurtful and maddening. Simon was all apologies after that. He explained that he had been fixated on the cut from the magazine, so sure it would be perfect on her, but he'd never imagined she'd actually do it. The surprise clouded his thinking, and he needed a moment to adjust his expectations. He assured her, over and over again, that he loved it, that her hair was gorgeous, and apologized profusely for suggesting otherwise.
Nina wasn't sure she believed him, but he kissed her neck in the right places to get her thinking she could accept his apology. His touch sent a shiver racing through her body. She tilted her head as his probing fingers found the perfect spot to massage. She breathed slowly, heavily, in response to an electrifying sensation as his fingers traced long lines up and down her arms.
As his touches intensified, his exploration became bolder, and Nina felt something unfurl inside. All thoughts of her new hairstyle evaporated with a shudder of desire. The moment their lips touched, Nina ignited inside. Her mouth opened hungrily.
Responding with equal eagerness, Simon pulled Nina into him. His hands were free to explore every inch of her body. He ran his fingers through her hair, undoing to some extent the hard work of her hairdresser, while each tug increased her passion.
Simon brushed his hands across the top of Nina's chest, then lowered them to her breasts while tracing his lips along the contours of Nina's neck. As he kissed her, Nina began a slow rotation of her hips, pressing herself into him with an increasingly desperate urgency. She needed this: lust, hunger, arousal. It was liberating. She felt unburdened. When their mouths met again, Nina's tongue worked more greedily than before. His kiss, touch, everything about his body felt so right and good, everything but that orangey, woodsy aroma that conjured vivid memories of Glen. How was it the new cologne still smelled like the old? Was Glen now haunting her sense of smell?
To purge herself of him, Nina closed her eyes, focused only on Simon, his body, his lips, his fingers in full command. She let Simon get on top, murmuring with pleasure as he rubbed against her, pushing his hands under her body before placing them on the front of her pajamas, pressing his fingers into her. Nina opened her legs wider, thrusting her hips into him.
Frantically, she pulled Simon's T-shirt over his head, tossing it to the floor. She kissed his chest, brushing her fingers over his stomach. She tugged at the drawstring of his sweatpants, undoing them with one try. Even though they had made love a few months after they'd begun dating, Simon was the first man other than Glen that she'd touched this way in more than twenty years. It still felt exciting and new, but also terrifyingly unfamiliar. He pulled back, cupping her head in his hands again as he looked deeply into her eyes, taking her in, all of her, loving her the way she needed to be loved. Her body trembled as
she worked her fingers down inside his pants. The intensity of Simon's kisses, his labored breathing, the way he touched her, ached for her, made her feel more desired than she had in years.
Nina assumed Simon would be so excited he might explode at her touch. But to her surprise, when she placed her hand on him, he wasn't hard at all. It was like a crash landing. Nina pressed her palm against him again, expecting to coax the start of a rise, but got nothing in response. She was genuinely confused. Simon had initiated their lovemaking and she was certain that he wanted her.
“Tell me what to do,” Nina said in a soft voice, trying to sound understanding as she pulled her hand away.
Simon climbed off of her.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I don't know what's wrong. I'mÂ â¦ I'm probably just tired.” Simon sounded flustered as he tumbled off the bed. He felt around the floor for his shirt and sweatpants.
“We'll try again later,” he said, with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
Confused questions ran through Nina's mind. Was it the change in her appearance? Was it that she didn't look just like the model in the magazine? Was it the tension at home? The job?
She had been up late with pointless worry, and come morning had needed extra foundation to cover the dark circles ringing her eyes.
Some re-entry into the working world.
Simon left the house before Nina, giving her a quick kiss good-bye and a few words of encouragement for the big day. Instead of talking about the night before, they'd talked briefly about him coming home early to let Daisy out and about maybe looking into doggie daycare now that she was working. That was itâuntil this phone call.
“Hey, babe,” Simon said when Nina answered. “How's the first day going?”
“Good,” she said rather hesitantly. As they talked, Nina became more animated, describing her office and giving vague details about her first case.
At some point, the conversation stalled.
“I'm sorry again about last night,” Simon said. “I'm actually not feeling well. Almost had to call in a sub, but I think I'll make it through the day.”
Simon's apology, while appreciated, did not make Nina feel better. She'd never failed to arouse him before.
“Is it my new hairstyle?” she asked apprehensively. “Are you upset about it?”
“God, no, you look beautiful. No, no, it's me, I wasn't feeling well, that's all.”
But Nina wasn't going to test that theory out. She had already made an emergency appointment that afternoon with her hairdresser, and she'd even used her phone to take a picture of the model so there would be no question about how it should be styled.
And Simon would be delighted.