I got the call early on a Sunday morning—too early. Six a.m. At least she had politely waited for the sun to rise on the West Coast. I was already awake, up and stretching in the driveway of our Victorian row house, prepping for my daily run.
“Wait,” I said, walking back inside, but speaking softly so as not to disturb my sleeping wife. “Alex, slow down. I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“He’s dead! I said Dave’s dead!”
She sobbed into the phone.
“What? Oh my god,” I said. “What happened?”
“He shot himself,” she said, her voice hoarse and deep. “He blew his fucking head off.”
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh shit,” I said, pushing at my brow as I slowly started to comprehend my sister’s words.
“You have to come home,” she said, sobbing again. “I’m losing it. Mom won’t understand what’s happening and I can’t handle all this shit by myself. I can’t believe he did this to me.”
“I’m so sorry, Alex. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
I walked back to my bedroom slowly, entering the room, watching Mary sleep for a moment or two before nudging her awake.
“Alex just called,” I said, an edge in my voice.
“It’s Dave. He—” My voice broke.
“He what? What is it?”
She sat up, alert, reaching for my hand.
“He killed himself. With a gun.”
“Oh, no. Oh, god. Poor Alex.”
“Yeah, it’s bad.”
“How did she seem?”
“Fucked up,” I said. “Pissed at him.”
“So selfish,” Mary said, trying to pull me down next to her. I resisted.
“There’s so much to deal with. The kids. His business. And meanwhile, there’s Mom.”
“Are you leaving right away?”
“I have to,” I said.
“I guess that’s right, but…” She turned away. “We need to talk.”
“Maybe this is”—I hesitated—“a good time for us to take a break.”
She threw the covers off and stood up.
“Jen,” she said, “don’t push me away.”
“Don’t let someone else in our bed!”
She slammed her fist into a pillow.
“One time. One fucking time,” she said, raising her voice almost to the point of a shout. Then lowered it. “When you hadn’t been home in a month.”
“Oh, is that the test? I’m busting my ass on a road show and you can’t keep yourself busy enough to dodge some teenager coming at you?”
“She was not a teenager.”
“Whatever. I have to get to Dallas.”
“I don’t want to lose you,” she said, reaching for me.
“I just can’t do this right now, Mary. I’ll call you when I get there.”
“What about Eli and Claire? We should let them know about Dave.”
“Please call them. And tell Claire she doesn’t need to come. She needs to stay focused on school.”
“Okay. Will Alex do a service?”
“I don’t know, but as soon as I have details, I’ll let everyone know.”
“Let me hug you,” she said.
I stood stiff while she hugged me and unresponsive when she kissed me. But I agreed to let her drive me to the airport. We rode along in silence. She tried to hold my hand, but I couldn’t bear it. I could still see it in my imagination, so vividly I felt I’d been there. Some kid, twenty-something, had tasted my wife’s sweet sex in our own home. Had sweated in my bed. Had pissed in my toilet. I retched thinking about it.
“Sweetie, please. Talk to me,” she said, pleading for my attention. “I love you. You’re everything to me. Please say something.”
“Clearly I’m not everything to you.”
I stared out the window, the fog burning off the hills as we sped down the road to SFO.
“And don’t be so selfish,” I said. “Alex is going through hell. Worse than hell. Think about her for a change.”
“Let me come with you. I can help with your mom. She loves me.”
“I need some time, Mary. I don’t know if I can get past this.”
She pulled the car off on the shoulder and slid to a stop, erupting into tears, heaving with deep belly sobs. I softened, so quickly won over by her raw, unselfconscious pain. I drew her to me, holding her while she soaked my blouse in her regret.
“I can’t bear the thought of life without you,” she said, looking at me through disheveled strands of hair. “Please don’t leave me. Please forgive me.”
I kissed her forehead, smoothed her hair away from her face.
“We need to get going or I’ll miss my plane. I’ll drive.”
I got out at the terminal and kissed her goodbye lightly, resisting when she tried to go deeper.
“Call me when you land,” she said, her eyes damp again.
On the plane I kept going back to what had happened the month before. For the first time in twenty years, I questioned how I felt about my wife. Her betrayal had done more than hurt me; it had changed my basic assumptions about myself. Since the day I knew I was in love with her, I had never once considered life without her. I hadn’t seen it coming. The tryst with the girl. Now what I questioned wasn’t so much my marriage, but my own awareness. What about Mary had I misunderstood so profoundly? Was I somehow to blame? Why had she thought that she could keep her relationship with me intact while indulging in an affair with a young woman not much older than our own children? By the time I landed in Dallas, I had so thoroughly relived every detail of that painful incident that I was almost in tears. I hoped it wasn’t over for good, but I couldn’t guess at the end of the story. Not yet.
* * *
“There you are!”
Alex ran to me as I came through the doorway of her suburban McMansion north of Dallas. She crushed me with a bear hug, knocking me off balance.
“I’m so sorry, Al. I can’t imagine…”
“The cowardly son of a bitch,” she said. “He’s fucked me good this time.”
“Jesus. I know. What do we need to do right away?”
“Oh, god, Jen. I don’t know where to start.”
She settled me into a bedroom upstairs and we ended up in her kitchen, the size of a small restaurant, filled with people she knew bringing food and trying to be helpful. Her two teenage boys, Ben (sixteen) and Harry (thirteen), wandered the room, looking haunted and threatening at the same time. They asked permission to go to their friends’ houses and Alex let them go.
“Can you believe he did this to them?”
The house cleared eventually and it was just the two of us.
“What kind of service will you do?”
“The most minimal I can do. He didn’t have any friends left. He’d alienated everyone. I want to get it behind me so I can start sorting out the mess he made of his company.”
“It’s tragic, Al. How did it come to this?”
She slumped into a chair, pushed her glasses on top of her head, into her mousey brown shoulder-length hair.
“One bad gamble after another. Always swinging for the fences. Sure the next big idea would bail him out of all the failed ones. In debt up to here. Lawsuits. Bankruptcy looming.”
“I didn’t realize it had gotten to that point.”
“He was always the best bullshit artist we knew, right?” She smiled at this, looking far away.
“Yeah, that’s Dave all right.”
We sat quietly for a moment or two, lost in memories of so many years of his antics.
“We need to talk about Mom,” Alex said, breaking the reverie.
“How is she?”
“How long has it been?”
I felt my cheeks burning. “I’m sorry. I know—”
“That’s not what I’m getting at. I just don’t remember when you were here last.”
“I think it’s been about six months. Too long.”
“She’s a little worse. Can’t remember anything new. But she’s still basically fine on her own, except she eats like a homeless person. She keeps the house. Remembers who everyone is.”
“At least there’s some good news.”
“The problem is, I can’t let her drive. She’s mad at me about that, so I haven’t actually sold the car, just confiscated her keys. With all this crap going on, I need you to stay over there. Cook now and then. Take her where she needs to go.”
“Of course. No problem. I’ll go over in the morning.”
“Thanks, Jenny. I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, hugging me tight.
“Could I give you some files to look over?” Alex asked me the next morning as I walked back into the house after my run. I was prepping for my first marathon later in the year and couldn’t let any distraction, even my brother-in-law’s death, get in the way.
“Sure. What files?”
“Dave’s stuff. You’re a lawyer. Maybe it will make more sense to you than it does to me.”
“Okay, but remember, I haven’t actually practiced in years.”
“I know, but you’re my super smart big sister. Just see what you think.”
I smirked, then frowned as she brought out several large overflowing bankers boxes full of files.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“I know. I told you it’s a mess.”
I loaded it all into my rental car and drove the short distance to Mom’s house.
“Mom!” I said, opening the door to her bungalow, downsized in retirement from their much larger home, in a neighborhood not far from Alex.
“There’s my baby girl! Home from California!”
“Hi, Mom. You look great!”
“Thank you, sweetie. Are you still in San Diego?”
“San Francisco, Mom. I’ve been in San Francisco for more than twenty years.”
“Oh, rats. That’s right. I don’t know why I always think it’s San Diego. Same difference anyway.”
I frowned, but resisted responding to that. She always tried to push my buttons on my decision to move to San Francisco from Dallas years before.
“What did you have for breakfast?” I asked her.
“Don’t listen to Alex. I’m just fine. I had some toast. How’s your girlfriend? What’s her name again?”
She knew very well it was Mary.
“I’m not playing that game with you, Mom.”
“Now, you haven’t been here five minutes and you’re already picking a fight with me.”
“I am not. I just hate it when you act like you can’t remember Mary’s name. And she’s my wife, not my girlfriend.”
“I don’t know where you get the idea you can have a wife. You know I don’t condone all that. I should never have let you go off to California.”
“I’m not going to argue with you, Mom. This is a dead issue. Thanks to the Supreme Court. So let’s just drop it. And, by the way, it’s not California’s fault that I’m gay.”
“What do you want to watch?” she asked, moving into her study where she spent most of her time in front of the television. “I like Mary. Where is she?”
We sat in the well-worn lounge chairs that dated back to when my father was still alive, some ten years before. Mom was a pro at taping movies and TV shows, and they were almost the only stimulation she had these days.
“Mary is at home. She’s busy with work. Doctors can’t work remotely, you know, especially when they’re surgeons.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forget. You know, my mind’s not what it used to be. How about Dancing with the Stars?”
I brought the boxes of files into the study and sat on the floor going through them while Mom fixated on the competition unfolding on the television. When an ad for Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign came on, Mom perked up.
“Don’t you have something to do with her?”
“Hillary? Yes, I’m one of the California Finance Committee chairs for her campaign.”
“That sounds like a big job.”
“Lots of fundraising,” I said, prepared to go on, but Mom was quickly back to her dance competition.
Before long, I discovered that Dave’s company had been forced into involuntary bankruptcy and, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t hired an attorney. I would need to fix that right away. I sat back, suddenly flushed, my heart pumping adrenaline into my chest, memories of Laura Peters crashing in on me without warning. I had followed her career from afar and knew she was one of the best bankruptcy attorneys in all the United States. But I hadn’t spoken with her since… I couldn’t bring myself to think about it. Not even after all these years. So much had happened since then, but, sitting there on the floor in my mother’s house, the wound was throbbing again, like an almost-healed gash torn open anew.
“Don’t you want to watch?” Mom asked, jolting me back to the present. “What’s all this paper everywhere?”
“I’m helping Alex with some legal issues. I’ll clean it up.”
“That husband of hers. He’s always in trouble. I’ll never understand why she stays with him.”
Alex had warned me she wouldn’t remember, so I didn’t bother to correct her.
“I need to make a phone call, Mom. I’ll be back in a little while.”
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