Chapter 9: Susan
I keep telling people on my show that they can write, and in early December, I’m ready to revise my tenth book.
I’m careful this time.
After I’ve seen Martin off to work, I wash up the breakfast dishes and do any urgent housework, and then I go into my office.
I set two alarms so that it’s harder for me to turn them off, and I do non-urgent housework from two until Martin gets home.
I save heavy chores for us to do together on Thursdays.
On Sundays, I do any urgent housework, and then we relax together, well, not quite, but at least we’re in the same room.
When Martin is home, I shut Tina completely off. I don’t allow myself to think about her books or I’ll want to run to my office and work. I’m keeping the peace and doing what I need to do.
By the third week of my show, I’ve received two stories, but neither are from Cecilia, and I feel as though I’ve promised her she’d be the first to be read on the air, so I save the others and hope Cecilia will send hers in soon.
My last show before Christmas is on December 22. Martin’s taking a week off, and I tell everyone that I’ll see them next year.
I drive home, already missing them, but there’s no way I can do my show if Martin’s at home.
On Christmas morning, Martin’s up at four. I want to sleep for another hour, but he wants breakfast and then presents, so I drag myself out of bed.
Hashbrowns. Bacon. Eggs. Pancakes. Coffee. Hot chocolate. Eggnog.
Martin wants it all.
Never mind that it’s ridiculously early and making all that is a huge amount of work.
Work for me, while he sits at the table with a goofy look on his face.
He’s never usually like this on Christmas. Sure, he likes it, but I’ve never seen him act like such a kid.
Everything for him needs to be piping hot. God help me if I should serve him up a cold morsel.
God help me if I should ever serve him something at all burned.
It has to be perfect. Every bite, or God help me.
I need some church. I’m thinking too much about how God should be helping me right about now.
I guess he’s too busy being the Father to the Son to care much about this unholy ghost of a tired wife.
Maybe going to bed earlier would be better for me than church.
“Can you make some apple pie please?”
Do we have any apples?
My head starts to pound.
If we’re out of apples, he’s going to get mad at me for forgetting to buy them.
There’s a ten-pound bag of apples.
“Wow. Can you make a few apple pies? I can take some to work.”
“Yes, I can do that, but probably not until . . . um, until later.”
“Oh, sure, that’s no problem. Can you make any other kinds of pies? I just remembered Connie doesn’t like apples.”
“I’ll check as soon as I dish up these pancakes.”
They’re perfectly done and pipingly hot.
He even makes me warm up the syrup.
I’m too tired to eat much, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
We have the ingredients to make several kinds of pies. Predictably, he wants all of them, but he says it’s “okay” to wait until after we open presents.
Well, ain’t that just ever so kind of y’all, Massa, I think in Jeff’s great accent.
While I clean up the kitchen and wash the mountain of dishes, he goes into the basement and I hear him carrying things up to the living room.
I’ll have to plan today carefully. He wants a full turkey dinner, even though nobody else is coming. His mom would, but she’s volunteering at a women’s shelter today, so she’s coming tomorrow.
Why can’t I be more like she is?
I’ll have to make the pies before lunch, otherwise the turkey and trimmings won’t have enough room.
He probably won’t mind if I cook some of the pies after dinner, so that means I get to stay up late cooking while he does whatever he feels like.
I might as well start boiling up the cranberries now.
When I walk into the living room, he’s sitting on the floor in front of the artificial tree he set up a couple weeks ago. Good thing, or I would have forgotten all about doing Christmas.
I really should go to church, but then there wouldn’t be time to make those pies.
“Is this one for me?” he’s holding up a box with his name on it.
He grins at me and rips off the paper.
It’s work clothes. I’m tired of washing them so often, so I’ve gotten him a whole bunch more. I also bought more towels, but I didn’t wrap those.
“Thanks. A few of mine are a little faded and a tiny bit worn. Maybe I’ll throw the worst ones away.”
No, please don’t do that, I think. I pray he’ll forget.
My parents have sent us presents, and his mom will bring something tomorrow.
Debbie, my friend from high school back home, has sent a card.
I forgot to send her one.
I’m a terrible friend.
My parents have sent us two romantic movies. Well, I’m sure Mom picked them out, and Dad’s written the card, all except for Mom’s flowery decorations and signature.
The first one I open from Martin is a cookbook. I flip through it. Darn. No pictures. It’s full of long, complicated recipes that would take a five-star French chef days, and me forever.
The next box contains books about sewing and knitting, along with a huge assortment of supplies for both. In the last box, I find a sewing machine.
“What do you think?”
I think he has unrealistic expectations, but I can see by his face that he wants me to like it, so I smile more brightly and artificially than our tree is.
“It’s lovely. Thank you.”
“Want me to put it in the guest room? Or is it good here.”
I don’t want this stuff anywhere near Tina. She’s a writer, not a domestic servant to the Boy King Martin.
“It’ll be good here.”
I pick up a book and flip the pages. A colorful chart looks up at me from the center of the book.
“Hey, that’s a cool sweater.”
Yes, so why doesn’t he ask his mom to make one for him? I’m sure she would.
“These instructions look kind of complicated.”
That’s the understatement of the year, I think.
“What are you gonna make first?”
“I’m not sure.”
I look at more of the books. Among them, I find a stitch dictionary.
What on earth is that?
Stitch. Noun. Something people use to sew and knit things with, I think.
It’s probably also a verb.
I stitch. I stitched. I am stitching. Am I going to stitch and please Martin?
I keep looking through the books. He must have bought every single one the store had.
I find one for beginners. Good, I might need that.
I leaf through it.
The easiest project is a scarf.
I show it to Martin.
The picture shows a little boy standing outside in the snow, wearing navy mittens, a jacket as blue as the ocean, and a bright, sky-blue scarf.
I try not to let my fake smile fall off my fatigued face.
I spend the rest of the morning making pies. First I have to make a ton of pastry, and then I have to prebake some of it. After that, I make fillings and fill the crusts. Then I have to bake some of those. The kitchen smells great, but I’m too tired to enjoy it.
Martin has pie for lunch. I have a sandwich, not because I don’t like pie, but because I’m tired, so why waste good pie?
After lunch, it’s back to the kitchen for another round of dishes.
When that’s over, it’s time for me to work on cooking dinner.
Turkey. Gravy. Potatoes, both mashed and not mashed. Dressing. Cranberry jelly, which I’ve already cooked. Vegetables, lots of them.
Martin calls from the living room, “What should we have for dessert?”
“How about some pie?”
“Naw. How about a cake?”
“What kind of cake?”
“Um, how about chocolate. No, maybe vanilla. Can you make both? Oh, and carrot cake. Karin loves that.”
“Oh, and Mom loves strawberry shortcake. Can you whip up one of those too?”
Four cakes? I’m gonna be up until breakfast tomorrow.
“I can make one in time for dinner. I’ve never made a carrot cake before, so I need to look that up, and I think your mom would enjoy the shortcake more if I made it tomorrow. Would you like the chocolate or vanilla one tonight?”
“Vanilla, please. Also can you make some dinner rolls to go with our dinner?”
He’s never asked for those before. He’s always just eaten the store-bought ones after asking me to toast them and melt some butter.
“Um, I’ve never made them, and I have no idea how long it takes.”
“Your new cookbook has a recipe for them.”
Great, just great.
“It says they’re basic.”
If I ever meet the author of that cookbook, I’m gonna give them a huge piece of my mind. Basic!
I go into the living room and Martin hands me the heavy book, which I almost drop.
It’s open to the relevant pictureless page.
Basic Dinner Rolls
I scan the recipe. I don’t think we have yeast. In fact, I know we don’t. I’ve never baked with it in my life. How can I tell Martin this fact without unleashing a full-blown temper tantrum? He’s being such a kid today, I wouldn’t be surprised if he rolled around on the floor kicking and screaming if I say we don’t have any yeast, not because I forgot to buy it, but because I’ve never needed to purchase the stuff.
“I guess we don’t have any yeast, huh?”
I don’t trust my voice, so I shake my head.
“Mom does, and she won’t mind if you go and get it.” He reaches into his pocket and hands me the key.
“Um, would you mind coming with me please? I don’t feel right going into her house without you when she’s not there.”
The real reason is that I don’t think I can drive safely in my current state of complete exhaustion.
I almost fall asleep in the car.
I look through her tidy cupboards and find the yeast right away.
He writes her a note saying that we’ve come for some yeast and that we’ll replace it, and then we drive home.
Once we get there, before I start making the so-called basic dinner rolls, I write down that I need to buy yeast next time I go shopping.
A few minutes later, I’m up to my elbows in flour.
By the time I’ve made the rolls, the cake, and the rest of dinner, I’m so tired, I have to consciously put one foot in front of the other just to make it to the table with the huge serving plates that Martin has not offered to help me carry.
“Wow, these are great!” Martin finishes off one roll and grabs another. He dips it in the melted butter I’ve provided, and takes a big bite.
I haven’t even worked up the energy to pick one up.
I look at him. He’s a mess. There’s butter all over his face and even on his shirt, which I’ll have to wash and it had better come out stain-free, or I’ll get the wrong end of his tongue for sure.
What have I married?
And why have I married it?
“Open your heart,” the minister said. “Open your heart to God, and problems won’t last.”
That minister has obviously never needed to cook a perfect dinner while mortally exhausted.
He eats and eats and asks for more and yet more.
I serve him and eat very little.
Finally, I bring in the cake. I’ve put red and green icing on it. It doesn’t look great, but Martin smiles and says how delicious it is. To me, it tastes like sweet cardboard.
He wants coffee, but I know it’ll make me jittery, so I make myself some hot chocolate.
He leans back in his chair. He’s smiling and has a dreamy look. He’s not looking at me, but at the cupboard where I keep things like food coloring, icing sugar, and candles.
I feel like I’m on autopilot as I go to it and take out a candle.
I look at him. His smile is like the baby Jesus’s smile that I’ve seen in paintings.
I put the candle in a holder and bring it and a box of matches to the table.
I flick off the light.
“Would you like me to light it?” he asks. His voice is soft and gentle.
He takes out a match and his hands are shaking just a little.
Well, I’ve heard that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so this must be fact.
He strikes the match, and the candle glows.
There’s a million dishes to do, and cakes to be baked before bed, but for now, I sit with Martin in the romantic light of the candle and watch him as he watches me.
After a while, I notice that there’s something expectant about his expression. He’s not, after all, just sitting with me in the romantic, lovely light of Christmas. It’s not our special look, but what is it?
After a few minutes, he says, “Do you have something to tell me? Or maybe something to show me?”
Chapter 10: Martin
Susan looks at me blankly.
Wow, she must really be tired. No problem. I’ll help her out.
“You’ve been so upbeat lately, and your skin is really glwoing. So I thought, well, could you be expecting?”
“What? You mean like expecting a baby? No way.”
“All that stuff about pregnant women glowing is just folklore. Trust me, if I was expecting, I’d be throwing up every morning. Thank goodness I’m not pregnant.”
She must be joking. It’s not very funny, but that must be what’s happening. Maybe she’s just super scared.
“It’s okay, I’d be nervous too if I was having a baby. I mean, we’ve waited so long for a child, it must be just . . . mind-blowing to find out you’re gonna be a mom after all this time.”
She frowns at me.
“I don’t know what’s going on, or why you’ve got this idea that I’m pregnant,, but I most definitely am not, so can we please stop talkng about it? Getting pregnant would be the worst thing that could happen to me. So can we just forget about it?”
How can she say this? And why would it be the worst thing for her?
“But what about the candle? What was it for, if not to tell me you’re expecting?”
“I have no idea. You were staring at the cupboard, so I got one out. Anyway, I’d better clear up and wash these dishes. Then I’ll make that chocolate cake.”
She extinguishes the candle, turns the light on, and starts picking up our empty plates.
How can she be so heartless?
As I lie awake that night, I realize what she meant about not wanting to become pregnant.
She’s having an affair, so a baby, either mine or his, would make it harder for her to go out and meet him. She’d have to stay inside if it was cold, and she wouldn’t risk inviting him here.
I cry into my pillow and am happy she’s too tired to hear me.
The house smells wonderufl, but our marriage stinks.
Now the question is, what am I going to do about it?
The first thing I need to do is find out who she’s having the affair with.
Yes, and then what?
I could beat up any man alive, but that wouldn’t make Susan see reason. In fact, it would probably drive her even further into this crazy mess, and she’d sit by his bedside, hold his limp hand, and tell him she loved him.
Not good, and if he died of his wounds, well, that’d be even worse.
Besides, Mom would never forgive me, and Dad’s ghost would always haunt me.
No, I’ll have to find some other way to break them up.
First, I really need to know who it is.
I’m sure she meets him while I’m at work, so there’s no way to find out until the new year.
And when that comes, how do I find out? I’m sure she’s not meeting him on Thursdays or Sundays, because I’m home all day, so it must be on one of the other days.
I’ll have to take a week off, leave the house, and then come back and watch to see where she goes.
I guess I’ll be spying on her, but she’s cheating on me, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
My next problem is how to watch the house. She knows my car, and I can’t sit around outside in the cold, even if there was a good place to hide.
I’ll have to try and sleep on it.
“This is delicious,” Mom says. She’s sitting to my right, and Susan’s across from me. Mom has just taken a bite of the strawberry shortcake Susan has made for her visit.
“Thanks. How was your Christmas?”
“Oh, it was lovely. I chatted with many of the women, and the children were delightfully playful. Everyone smiled so much and kept hugging me. Many of them have had such a difficult time, but they love Christmas.”
“How long have you been working there?”
“Oh, about two months. The other staff members are inspiring, and it’s so nice to see the children smile and play. I miss having a child in my home.”
“Doesn’t the noise drive you bananas?”
“No, I love listening to them talk and play.”
“What about when they cry? Even if I hear it for a few minutes at the supermarket, it gives me a pounding headache. I can’t imagine listening to that for hours in my own home.”
“Some mothers let their children cry, so that might be the reason it bothers you so much, but I never let Martin cry for long.”
When Mom says she’d better go home, Susan offers her the rest of the cakes and pies she’s made.
“Martin was going to take these to work, but we forgot he’s not going back until next week. We can’t possibly eat all this, so I thought maybe the people at the shelter might like them.”
The rest of my week off is never-ending. Susan is nice to me, but there’s something impossibly bright about her attitude. She’s all glare and hard edges when I want soft light and gentle curves.
Finally, it’s January 2, and I eat breakfast and drive to work.
“This is gonna be our last shared workout,” Melanie says. It’s the first Monday in January, and Frank looks as surprised as I am to hear her say this.
“Why’s that?” he asks. “I love working out with you.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound unfriendly. I’ll still be here, but won’t need a session. I may not always use the bikes, but I’ll be in the gym and will ask Luke if I need help with the settings.”
Why did Tim have to pick Mondays to switch with Luke?
“That makes sense,” Frank says. “Say, what do you think of yoga and the class Karin’s teaching?”
“They’re both great,” she says.
Frank looks at me.
“Are they good for an old man like me?”
“I haven’t tried either of them, so you should ask Karin and Luke.”
He does, and the next Monday, he tells us he’s joining both of them.
“Karin’s class is on Tuesdays, and yoga is on Thursdays.”
Melanie smiles at him.
“We’ll be in the same classes. Did I tell you I’ve bought a bike?”
“An exercise bike or a transportation bike?” he asks.
“An exercise bike. So today will be my last day on this one. The one I bought is a lot more comfortable.”
That’s it. I won’t see Melanie anymore. I might be able to say hi to her on Tuesdays, but that’s all, and it’ll be in the waiting room, so somebody else will always be around.
I really should take a week off work and find out what Susan’s doing. I’ve thought it through and come up with a plan. The only problem is me. I don’t want to know who she’s meeting, so I put it off.
It’s a freezing cold Tuesday morning in late January, and I’m stepping out of my car when I see Melanie getting out of hers.
I feel lighter and warmer already, and we haven’t even said a word.
“Hi. How are you?”
“I’m happy to see you.”
“Me too. I was wondering, um, can we do lunch?”
“Yeah, or dinner.”
“Lunch would be great. Would tomorrow be okay? I don’t have anybody at eleven, so I can take a long lunch.”
She thinks for a few seconds and names a French restaurant.
“See you tomorrow.”
“Sure will. It’s nice that we don’t have to be professional with each other, now that I’m no longer your client.”
She grins at me and I hear a car pull to a stop and then I see the last person I want to lay eyes on.
“Hey Melanie, you’re early.”
Has he seen us talking? What if he tells everybody?
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d come and practice some yoga before Karin’s class.”
He smiles at her, says hi to me, and walks into the building.
“Sorry,” she says. “I would have called, but I wanted to see you face-to-face when I asked you out. Next time, I’ll call.”
As I enter the building behind her, I hope Rick will think we were just saying hi. If he figures out that we’re planninf a date, I wouldn’t put it past him to tell Susan. Thank God he doesn’t know she’s cheating on me, or the whole world would probably know by now.
At 1:45, Connie arrives.
Rick barely says hi before he runs off to where Karin’s teaching her class.
I don’t have a client until 2:30, and there’s nothing much to do in my office, so I figure I’ll chat with Connie for a few minutes.
When I look at her, I notice she’s crying.
“Are you okay?”
She shakes her head.
“Your son? Is he sick?”
She shakes her head.
“His dad’s name is also Albert. He . . . he . . . he left me.”
She grabs a Kleenex and wipes her eyes.
“I saw her. She came to our house to pick him up. He told me to pack all his stuff. She’s half his age. Half my age. Albert, I mean my son, was there. They didn’t even have the courtesy to do this while he was at school. He heard everything she said.”
“I’m sorry Connie. Do you want to tell me?”
“She picked up a bag of his stuff and said, ‘Don’t try to make trouble for us. My family’s rich, and we know all the lawyers in the state, so the only battle you’ll win is custody of the kid.’ She was mean enough to point to him, to make sure he knew she was talking about him.”
She wipes her face again.
“She didn’t even have to do that. I wasn’t going to fight with him. I don’t know if I have the money to support us without him, so it’s not like I’m gonna hire a lawyer.”
“You should. He’ll have to pay child support.”
“But she said she knows all the lawyers.”
“She was trying to scare you. Hire a lawyer. Go after him for as much as you can get.”
“I loved him. Why is he doing this to me? Why is he letting her do this to poor Albert? He’s never done anything to disappoint either of us. He gets straight A’s.” The ghost of a smile touches her lips.
She loves her child. Susan’s like her unfaithful husband.
I step behind the desk and give Connie a hug.
“Thanks,” she says, and hugs me back.
The door opens, and Melanie comes in.
Connie lets go of me and I come out from behind the desk.
She must be in a hurry, because she doesn’t say hi.
No problem. Tomorrow, we’ll have plenty of time to say hi, and more.
At 11:00 the next morning, I walk into the restaurant. I look for her, but she’s not there. Maybe traffic is bad.
I sit down at a table for two.
She’s usually early, but maybe she got a phone call or something just before she left.
“Can I get you anything, sir?” A man with a French accent is at the table.
“I’m waiting for somebody, so just a cup of coffee please.”
“Certainly. Would you prefer a regular coffee, or would a latte be more convivial?”
I have no idea what that word means, nor do I like lattes, so I ask him for a regular coffee.
I sit there for two hours, and then I have to go back to work.
I must have gotten the day or time wrong. That’s all I can think of.
I’ll call her when I’m between clients and we’ll reschedule. No big deal.
I end up having to wait until I’m in my car on the way home.
I enter her cell number.
It rings and then goes to voicemail.
I don’t want her calling me back while I’m at home, so I don’t leave a message.
I try her landline.
“Hi,” a man says. “How’s it going?”
Definitely not her dad. He sounds like he’s about twenty. Maybe he’s the reason she didn’t show up today. Well, talking to him is a bad idea.
“Is this Clay’s Cleaners?”
“Clay’s Cleaners? No, this is a house.”
“Sorry, wrong number.”
“Don’t sweat it, pal.”
I put the phone down.
What I can’t understand is why she asked me out and then stood me up. She didn’t strike me as the kind of person who’d do something like that. She’s planning to have a baby, so why the games?
Calling her is too risky, so I’ll have to try to talk to her when she comes for a class.
That means I’ll have to wait until Saturday.
I spend the next two days wondering what I’ll say to Melanie.
On Saturday morning, my stomach is full of butterflies. Heck, I haven’t felt this nervous in years.
As she usually is, she’s early. I don’t try to talk to her before her yoga class, but wait until she leaves.
“I’ll be right back,” I say to the client who’s just arrived. “I need to go to my car for a bottle of water.”
Do I sound unnatural? I hope he doesn’t notice.
Rick is there, and there’s no way I’m going to let him hear me talking to her.
I run outside and catch up to her just as she’s about to close her car door.
She pauses and looks at me.
Her blue eyes are hard.
“What happened on Wednesday? I sat in that place and waited for you.”
“Yeah, and then you called and pretended to be looking for Clay’s Cleaners. I’m serious about dating, and I’m not looking for somebody like you who plays games with women’s hearts. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to go home.”
“Wait, what are you talking about? I wasn’t playing games with anybody’s heart, least of all yours.”
“So making out with Connie was just what, a little fun at work where everybody could see you? Oh, I don’t want to be seen talking to a client outside of the office, but kissing a colleague is just fine? Is that how it works?”
“You should talk. We had a date and here you are, playing around with my heart, making me sit there for two hours drinking coffe when you had no intention of coming. The least you could have done was called me and told me you’d found somebody else. So who’s playing games with whose heart?”
“I haven’t found anybody else yet.”
“What about that kid who answered the phone?”
“That was Joseph, my brother, you idiot!”
“Yeah, well Connie was sad, and I only gave her a hug, you idoot!”
We stare into each other’s eyes. Hers look a little less hard and a little unsure.
“I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Now you do. I have a mom, a dad, a brother, and a sister. You?”
“I’m an only child. How’d you her about the Clay’s Cleaners thing?”
“I heard Joseph on the phone and then I checked the number and it was you. So you’re not dating Connie?”
“No. We’re friends.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have called you. Can we remake that date?”
“How about tonight.”
I’ll call Susan and tell her I’m working late.