Kim Suhr: Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom (amazon)
Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / The Good Life (amazon / indiebound / ebook) / Bright, Precious Days (amazon / indiebound / ebook)
How to Play with Fire
When You’re About to Play with Fire
Shift into Park.
Take off your wedding ring. Put it in the cup holder next to the gearshift and slide your empty water bottle over it. Not that someone looking for something to steal would notice the thin gold band and diamond-chip engagement ring. Not that anyone would expect anything of value in a ten year-old Kia in the parking lot of a tired, half-occupied office building on a Friday morning anyway.
The irony of this small action is not lost on you: hiding your wedding ring to protect it from being stolen at the same time you’re about to break your vow. But you must get that ring off your hand. Now. Before you lose your nerve.
Turn off the engine and pay attention to what you do with the keys after you take them out of the ignition. Talk about an afterglow killer, having to call your husband to rescue you when you realize you’ve locked your keys in the car. After your only extramarital encounter in seven years of marriage. Would that be a cliché or irony? You don’t want to find out. Slip the keys into the outside pocket of your purse.
Fish your phone from the crack between the passenger seat and gearshift console. Try to ignore the text from Patrick. Pretend not to notice the x and the o after he tells you he’ll pick up Macey from daycare. Try not to feel like a major bitch for translating this message as An extra half-hour with Alex in your office. Alone.
Do stop for a moment to enjoy the sensation of warmth and moisture, the slight change in your breathing when you think about Alex.
When You’re About to Be Magnanimous
Make it seem like something that just occurred to you. “You know, Mary, there’s no reason you have to wait around here until four.” Your assistant’s desk is clear. You can’t see her computer screen, but you’re pretty sure she’s playing solitaire to pass the time. You haven’t picked up enough clients to justify her salary anyway. So much for Patrick’s brilliant idea to leave New York and open your own freelance editing business here in Milwaukee, of all places. “You must have a million things to get done before the rehearsal dinner.”
Mary looks grateful. “Really? You don’t mind?”
“Of course not. As far as I’m concerned, the mother of the bride shouldn’t work at all on the day before her daughter’s wedding.” Smile. “Go.”
She thanks you, extracts her purse from her bottom drawer and checks your schedule. “Looks like you’ve only got a one o’clock with Alex. Quiet afternoon.”
When Doubt Seeps In
Review the list of signs.
How a flush rises in his cheeks when you look him straight in the eye and compliment his writing.
How he takes extra sips of water when you sit side by side at the work table, then ends up with hiccups and you now share an inside joke.
How he’s stopped referring to his wife. In fact, it has been so long that you’ve forgotten her name, if you ever knew it at all. Okay, that’s not true. You met her at the launch party, but you have completely obliterated her name from your memory. Lisa, maybe.
How he’s stopped asking about your husband and daughter and focuses exclusively on questions whose answers he already knows. Questions about your travels before you met Patrick, before Macey came along. As if keeping you mentally in that time prevents them from existing. And how happily you stay in that period. “You were in Bangkok, right? What year was that again?” As if willing your visits to coincide. Perhaps you’d eaten in the same restaurant. Maybe he’d bought you a drink and you’d gone to the night market together. But, of course, his Peace Corps stint had ended long before your six-week homestay during high school.
When Guilt Pays a Visit
Remind yourself that you’re not looking for anything long-term. Just a little something to make you feel like you’ve still got it. And, be honest, to punish Patrick just a bit. Not that he’ll ever know.
Remind yourself of everything you left behind in New York. If you were there right now, you’d be having lunch at Billy’s chatting up the Random House types starting to make headway toward a mid-level editor position. Instead, in a moment of post-partum sentimentality, you let Patrick convince you Macey needed a backyard and grandparents nearby.
Remember the look on Samantha’s face when you broke the news over drinks after work. “Milwaukee?!” She’d almost snorted as she said it. When she realized you weren’t joking, she got serious. “It’s not exactly a literary hotbed, girlfriend. What about your career?”
At the time, you tamped down your thoughts that she might be right about Patrick’s hometown. After all, this kind of work was something you could do from literally anywhere. Bhutan or Rio, you told her.
“Well, for God’s sake, go to Bhutan or Rio, then.” She finished her drink. “At least they’re exotic. Don’t go to Milwaukee.”
You feel a certain regret now as you realize how right she was. The only clients you’ve been able to pick up are one step above the vanity publishing crowd. So much for Patrick’s assurance you’d get plenty of work in Milwaukee. It’s as if the publishing world thinks you fell off the face of the planet when you moved from New York. In many ways, it’s true.
When He Arrives
Look at your watch pretending you can’t believe it’s one o’clock already and time for your appointment. Give him a warm smile.
Today it will be chapters nine through twelve, the weakest so far. What you should say early in the consult is, These chapters really need to go. But that would kill the mood, so you decide you’ll begin by pointing out the elements that are working, a detail here, a turn of phrase there.
Close your laptop. Push your chair back from the desk.
In the doorway, he’s wearing his kid grin, a combination of admiration and gratitude. In the beginning, he couldn’t stop thanking you for taking him on. Truth is, the manuscript for his first book, Out There, was a first-class mess, worse than this one in many ways. Still, it was full of potential, and, in those days, you had the balls to be tough on him.
As you spent hours together over the final edits, you sensed a third party in the room. Attraction. You’re not quite sure where it came from. In a bar, you’d dismiss the gray at his temples, his thick glasses. Maybe it’s the way he laps up your suggestions for revisions. Maybe you’ve fallen in love with the younger, more adventurous Alex, of his book, who backpacked across Southeast Asia before he met his wife.
At your final editing session, you suggested a second book. “That’ll be the next question, you know: What are you working on now?” You leaned forward a little. “It’s the kiss of death not to have an answer.”
He looked grave and told you about a draft of a love story he had on an old floppy disk somewhere. You knew Out There would have some legs in the small press world and you could probably whip a second Alex Chandler book into good enough shape to get some notice. “Tell you what,” you lightly touched his forearm as you said it, “make it an adventure-travel-love story and we’re in business.”
He would have to rewrite from scratch since neither of you could find a way to access the files. You didn’t say that anything written before Out There would surely have the mark of amateur written all over it anyway. He outlined the plot for you, trite as could be. You resisted the urge to ask him just how old he’d been when he’d written it. The way his eyes shone as he talked about Matt and Paula and how they’d spent years in dying marriages before finally finding each other, it was obvious he believed something like that could really happen. Of course, you didn’t fall in love with the story, but you did start to feel a certain magnetism to a man, old-fashioned and romantic enough to believe readers would buy it.
When he described the climax, you didn’t point out to him that he’d accidentally used your name in place of Paula’s, but now you kind of wish you had. You might even be in bed together now instead of him taking a seat on the other side of your desk.
You’ll have to change that, get him onto the couch.
He’s pushing the manuscript across your desk. Another of his old-fashioned ways—he doesn’t email rewrites, says he wants to be sitting in the room watching your reactions as you read. With the first book, you were able to block out his presence and go at it with red ink. As if he’d disappeared from the room completely, you’d settle into his words. But this one, it’s been like a stage performance, peppering your reactions with little chuckles, an “ahh” here and there.
When you ask, he tells you the rewriting has been tough this week but his eyes don’t meet yours as he says it, and you don’t want to go down the rewriting-is-hell-highway, so you flick the blinker and steer the conversation another direction.
“Tell you what. Let’s try something different today.” You head toward the couch stopping to pull two bottles of water from the mini-fridge on the way. “I remember I had some issues with the dialogue last time, and, since we’re at the climax, it’s pretty important to get that right.” Sit down and pat the cushion next to you. “Why don’t we read Chapter Nine aloud and see if the dialogue feels more natural this time around.”
When He Sits Down
Breathe in the scent of his deodorant. Warm and spicy, it reminds you of tea shops and temples. Open his water bottle, making sure your hand brushes his as you give it to him. Don’t allow it to linger so long that you’re being obvious. He’s wearing a soft-looking cotton shirt. Resist the urge to touch it.
“I wish I would have known.” He opens the fat binder holding his rewrite. “I could have brought an extra copy.”
You could make copies on the machine next to Mary’s desk easily enough. Instead, you slide closer to him. “That’s okay. We can work from the same script. Why don’t you read all the narration and Matt’s dialogue. I’ll make notes along the way and be Paula.”
At first, you mark a couple things that jump out at you—wordy sentences, a point of view slip—making sure to balance them out with plus signs and smiley faces. Despite yourself, you are falling into the writing. Unlike in the last version, Matt sounds like a flesh-and-blood guy who really is struggling between his sense of duty to an anemic marriage and his attraction to Paula. And Paula’s quest has shifted from pure sex to something deeper.
“Laura has pancreatic cancer.” Alex’s voice has the same inflection he used when reading Matt’s dialogue, but these words aren’t on the page. Comb your brain to figure out who Laura is, and then it comes to you. His wife.
Pancreatic isn’t one of those you nail with chemo and get five more good years. A selfish glimmer, which you don’t even allow to become a full thought, streaks through your mind. Stare straight ahead trying to think of the right thing to say. Realize he’s been holding this news since he walked through the door, as you lured him to the couch, snuggled up next to him to read. If you were to let yourself, you’d be able to recognize the signs of his worry from the moment he poked his head into your office. But you don’t.
Unable to think of the right words, you say, “Oh, Alex, I’m sorry—” Let your face ask the questions he’s going to answer anyway.
He takes off his glasses. His eyes are dry and clear. “We found out Monday. Stage four. They’re talking months, not years.” Instead of a voice choked with grief or fear, which you’d expect, his is matter-of-fact. “She’s decided not to do anything. Chemo, I mean. There’s no surgery.” A grimace plays at his lips. “Ironic, huh?”
Quell the urge to point out that this would be a misuse of the term but you can see the ironic nature of the situation. “Yeah, that must have been a tough call.” Consider the calendar. In all likelihood, she’ll be gone by Christmas. Finally, you find something appropriate to say: “How are you doing with—everything?”
“Oh, God. I don’t know. I mean I’m probably supposed to want her to fight it,” he says. “Even though I’ve thought about leaving a hundred times once the kids went to college, it’s not like I want her to be,” he pauses, “dead.”
Mirror his shaking head. Of course, you’d never think he’d wish his wife dead.
“But, well, do you want me to be honest?”
At first you think he is asking just to make sure you’re listening, but he stops and waits for an answer like he really wants to know. You, on the other hand, aren’t so sure you want him to be honest. You can’t very well say that, of course. “Sure, you can tell me,” because you do like the idea of him confiding in you.
“To be honest, she has been nothing but angry for the past ten years. I think she blames me for her unhappiness or something.”
“Maybe it is my fault. Who knows? The more I think about it, it’s almost like the diagnosis will put us both out of her misery.” He looks at his hands, cleans his glasses with a cloth from his front shirt pocket, rests the glasses back on the coffee table. “That’s awful, isn’t it?”
You realize you’ve been clenching your jaw, trying not to see this from Laura’s point of view. “No, not awful,” you say. “Just human.”
His face relaxes.
Take a drink from your water bottle, so you don’t have to look at him. You hope for a sob or a tear or something when he speaks again, but his voice is solid. “Okay then, while I’m being human, I have a confession to make.” His body is so close to yours now you can feel his soft shirt on your forearm and swear you can sense the heat radiating from his groin. What you would have given for this just a few minutes ago. He reaches for your left hand, notices your missing ring, smiles. His goatee tickles your palm as he kisses it. He breathes in deeply as if he’s trying to take in the entirety of your aroma.
Because it is the only thing you can do, close your eyes.
When You’re About to Get Something You Thought You Wanted But Now Aren’t So Sure
Keep your eyes closed.
That’s what you tell Macey to do when something scares her. Close your eyes, and, when you open them again, everything will look different.
Remind yourself that this is exactly what you wanted. Remind yourself of the list and the fact that it has been months since Patrick has tried to initiate lovemaking. Months since you’ve felt his breath on your neck, since his tongue has visited that spot near your collarbone, the one that always puts you one flutter away from orgasm. Yes. Right there.
Tell yourself this has nothing to do with Alex’s dying wife, that he’s been waiting to kiss you like this since before his wife got sick, that his kisses aren’t a desperate attempt to assuage his guilt about his relief that she’ll be gone.
That it’s you he’s attracted to.
Open your eyes.
When You Drive Home
Try to shake the image of his disappointed face from your mind. Turn up the radio. Switch channels to the headbanging station so there’s no danger of some sort of meaningful song coming on and messing with your head. Banish all glimmers of realization that should have occurred to you as you removed your wedding ring this morning.
Rescue it from under the water bottle and tell yourself nothing is different. Remind yourself how much your husband loves you. Reassure yourself that if you were to take ill, he would not see your diagnosis as a misery-ender. Yours or his. When you get home, he’ll be cooking dinner with your daughter happily eating Cheerios in the high chair. Completely ignorant of what you almost threw away, he’ll give you a peck on the cheek as you drop your briefcase on the counter and kick off your shoes. You’ll be faithful to them both from now on. No harm. No foul.
Start to mentally arrange your schedule to put a rush on Alex’s book. See if you can talk the publisher into getting it to print in time for Laura to attend the launch, for his children to get home to celebrate their last happy event as a family all together.
Start a new list.
This story was originally published in Midwest Review
Kim Suhr is the author of Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom and director of Red Oak Writing. Her work has appeared in many journals, most recently at Midwest Review, the Stonecoast Review and Solstice Lit where her story, “Night Vision,” was named as a finalist in their summer contest judged by Celeste Ng. Kim’s collection, Nothing to Lose & Other Stories, was a finalist for the Eludia Award. She holds an MFA from the Solstice program at Pine Manor College in Boston where she was the Dennis Lehane Fellow in Fiction. To learn more about her writing, visit kimsuhr.com.
Image: Flickr / Shawn Harquail