Truth of the Matter

Chapter One


Ten more minutes—fifteen, tops. I can stick this closing out for that long without falling apart. A revenge plan of some kind might’ve cushioned the blow, but payback won’t put my family back together. I’ve survived losses before. The only new ground this time will be helping my daughter, Katy, cope with the fallout. I have a plan for that, but at present I’m best served by relaxing my shoulders, sipping my water, and maintaining my carefully blank expression.

Hiding my feelings would be easier if I hadn’t left our home for the last time less than an hour ago. Without drapes and carpets, the McMansion had felt cooler than the inside of its Sub-Zero refrigerator. A fitting end.

Recollections of those final moments spent in the foyer bombard me. On the wall, unfaded squares where my original paintings had hung. The faint echoes of the shrill bell on the pink bike Katy used to pedal across the floor, and of the futile marital arguments about missed soccer games and inconsiderate in-laws that replaced laughter and “I love yous.” The aroma of cocoa on rainy mornings spent seated in the family room’s window bench, where I’d stared past the pool to the wooded perimeter, wondering how I could be a mother and wife yet so lonesome.

Like shadows, my memories record the history of a family that will no longer live under one roof. Of the atrophied dreams and broken promises flayed by the sharp blade of divorce. But the worst part of my morning was the look on Katy’s tear-streaked face before she jumped into the yellow Jeep that Richard bought her on her sixteenth birthday, and sped away from me like a canary freed of its cage.

Now, while the brokers leave the conference room to confirm the wire transfer and the buyers exchange a celebratory kiss at the other end of the table, Richard turns to me. “Jim will be in touch to finalize the transfer of stocks and other things before the end of the week.”

It’s not surprising that my husband of seventeen years treats the end of our marriage as nothing more than another negotiation. His emotional IQ has dipped in direct inverse relation to his legal career’s spike. He’s probably quite self-satisfied for being so “generous” with our divorce settlement, but, honestly, I’d prefer less money in exchange for seeing even an ounce of regret in his eyes.

I say nothing about the stocks because “Thank you” seems unwarranted for something I earned in exchange for years of waiting patiently—raising our daughter largely on my own while supporting him as he built his practice—on the promise of the life we would one day share. Surprise! Instead of planning empty-nest vacation weekends in Bermuda, he dumped me to bestow those perks on Lauren, the interloper.

I hate Lauren. A blow-up-pictures-of-her-face-and-toss-darts, stopping-barely-short-of-wishing-harm-on-her kind of hate. And I’ve never hated anyone in my life, so I haven’t mastered control over the crippling surges of vengeance. It’s frightening, to be honest, so I redirect my thoughts and ask Richard about his plans with our daughter.

“Where are you taking Katy for lunch?” At the first hint of his confused expression, I grip my purse to keep from pounding my fists on the table. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”

Sorry not sorry about my irked tone.

“I did.” He proceeds to scrub his face with both hands in one deliberate motion. God, that annoys me. Each gesture, word, and outfit is chosen with care. “I promised Lauren—”

“You cannot blow off Katy for your girlfriend today of all days.” Technically Lauren’s his new fiancée, but I won’t give her that respect. Three and a half months ago, Richard confessed his affair and asked for this divorce. Nine weeks ago, he moved out. His eagerness to move on is driving his acquiescence on financial and custody matters. Still, Richard’s already put a ring on Lauren’s finger although technically our divorce isn’t finalized. “Lauren sees you plenty. Katy needs your reassurance today. She’s having a rough time with the changes. Please be there for her, Richard.”

Ah, finally. The tiniest trace of guilt disrupts the cool surface of those Pacific-blue eyes. “I’ll have lunch with Katy.”

Again, “Thank you” seems unfitting. I settle on “Good.”

“But don’t act like I’m abandoning her. You’re taking her out of town.” He drums his fingers on the table, glowering.

He probably doesn’t expect me to smile in response, but I can’t help it. Purchasing my gram’s old Cape Cod–style home in the sleepy bayside town of Potomac Point has been my only silver lining in this situation.

Yes, part of me is fleeing Arlington to avoid both the pitying whispers of “friends” and bumping into Richard and Lauren. But my childhood summers on the water were a salve after I lost my mother, and living there should help Katy deal with this loss. Plus, I want to spend more time with Gram before her dementia erases every shared memory.

Katy and I deserve something good in our lives, so I won’t apologize for it.

Still, Richard knows me well enough to suspect I wrestle doubts, mostly because of Katy’s intensifying anxiety about leaving her friends and changing schools. Yet every parenting book promises she’ll gain new confidence from learning to adapt. Real confidence, not the false kind she gets from tap-dancing to her father’s tune for praise. Once we get through these rocky first weeks, the change of pace will be good for us both.

Please let me live with Dad,” Katy had pleaded before driving off. Each of those words had whistled through the air to pierce my heart like poison-tipped darts, and not only because I’ve devoted myself to parenting her. Richard hasn’t and won’t.

From the moment we accidentally conceived her in college, he’s loved the idea of his mini-me—our gorgeous, intelligent daughter—yet, over time, his priorities have undermined her bit by bit, pecking away at her like a crow.

Despite this act he’s putting on now, he doesn’t want Katy disturbing his next family, but of course he won’t tell her that. Once again he’s left the black hat on the table for me to wear while I flounder for some way not to devastate her—exactly like he did when he dropped the divorce bomb on me in early May and then took off for New York for a few weeks to work some big deal.

Frankly, I expected him to do or say something to reset the balance of power today. For once, control is something I can deny him for a change. He leans forward, hands stretched out on the table, wedding band already removed. I cover my wedding rings before pulling both hands onto my lap.

“Anne, you’ll be better off once you admit that you weren’t any happier in our marriage than I’ve been lately. Trust me, there’s someone out there who’s more capable of meeting your needs than I ever was. You deserve that, too.”

Blandishments? My temperature is steadily climbing. At this rate, I could blow like Vesuvius before the brokers return. All these years I’ve set aside my own ambitions and managed our home and daughter while he focused on his career, and this is how he repays me? In any case, the last thing I want now is another man in my life after having spent my entire adulthood with this one.

“Gee, thanks.” I refuse to look away although something uncomfortable slithers through me—perhaps an acknowledgment of my willingness over time to settle for a B-minus marriage instead of striving for an A-plus one.

Our passion had begun to ebb once he’d graduated from law school and gone to work. Truth be told, Richard practically lived at his office while building his practice, which then left me little opportunity to be either an outstanding or a poor wife.

Then Katy started showing signs of extreme sensitivities around four—a hyperawareness of others’ opinions, banging her head against a wall when she made a mistake, crying too easily over every little thing. Richard called them tantrums, but I worried she might have deeper issues. Managing her behavior and schedule required more and more of my attention, exhausting me.

Between Richard’s long hours, my volunteerism, and Katy’s needs, it seemed as if sex became scheduled like every other obligation, and our conversations veered toward efficiency rather than intimacy. But we’d had Katy to connect us, and I thought we’d rediscover each other and spontaneity once she went to college.

The actual result? Richard now enjoys a thriving practice and new family while I’m living in a chronic state of confusion with a teen who constantly misconstrues me.

He’s still handsome, though: thick dark hair with hints of silver, cheekbones I envy, and a gorgeous mouth. Vital, too, thanks to vigorous exercise and boundless energy. Most things come easily to him, as with Katy. Maybe that’s why neither of them is patient with how hard the rest of us work for the things that matter.

“Seems I can’t do anything right today.” He sits back. It saddens me that this exchange has probably reaffirmed his relief to be ditching me. I bury every bit of grief beneath the thick seams of resentment and righteous indignation his adultery has handed me.

To look at him now, I wouldn’t recognize the man who pursued me during our junior year at the University of Richmond. He’d been relentless, coming around the studio where I’d painted, or bringing his books along to the James River Park’s green spaces where I’d sketched. Like my gram, he’d encouraged my wildest artistic dreams. That praise, the belly kisses and hushed whispers as we lay naked and spent, the love notes stuck in my backpack, the flowers he’d bring for no reason—all his ardor tricked me into believing that, despite being twenty, naive, and pregnant, we could build a happy life together—a family like the one I’d lost when my mother died.

Since then, I’ve come to call that zeal his “acquisition mode,” as he’s wooed new clients with the same intensity. His surname suits him, because he much prefers the chase to maintenance.

Lauren will be in my shoes soon enough. The day some major new client or other woman crosses his radar, I’ll have the last laugh. Of course, I’ll feel bad for her two young children, who’ll be casualties of his whims. Like Katy.

If Richard and I were alone now, I might literally reach across the table to slap that self-pitying look off his face. Look at him sitting there as if everything is about him. He doesn’t get it and never will. My mood—the root of my concern—is about Katy.

Yes, I’m a woman in my prime. A woman of some means. A woman with talent, some might even say. But first and foremost I am a mother.
“What’d you do with the furniture? It can’t all fit in Marie’s old house.” Richard’s question temporarily throws me.

“Severed Ties took what we didn’t need.” The high-end consignment store pays the original owner 50 percent of its profit on sales. “Whatever I make will be put toward Katy’s college fund.”

“Keep it.” His full lips bend into a conciliatory smile. “I can pay her tuition.”

Here he goes again, sounding generous when really he’s trying to buy me off so he can boast to others about how fair he’s been. He’s never understood this about me: I don’t care about hoarding money or things. Never did and never will. “And I can afford to contribute.”

Some might consider me lucky because, along with my suitcases, I take a comfortable nest egg and alimony—enough that I’m not panicked about establishing a career after all these years at home. But he’s still gotten off pretty cheaply for betraying me and our old dreams. Naturally, I don’t share my feelings or let him see my pain.

“Fine, Anne.” He rolls his eyes and checks his watch. “Jesus, I’m trying to be a decent guy.”

Too little, too late.

A laundry list of insults cycles through my mind like ticker tape, but I literally bite my tongue when another image of Katy’s splotchy face from this morning flickers through my mind. All the time spent filling her life with love and opportunity means very little in light of one inescapable reality: by letting our family fall apart, Richard and I have fundamentally failed our daughter.

Condemning my husband is pointless. However we got here, the result is the same.

The brokers return, confirm the payments, congratulate us all, and quickly show us out. Even though I never loved that house, the finality of what’s happening hits me like a board to the face. My married life and home are truly lost to me. There will be no going back. No fixing what broke. I’m starting over at thirty-seven. That prospect festers like an ulcer. All I know is how to be a wife and mother.

My hands tremble for a split second as I grapple with my purse strap. Please, God, don’t let Richard see my strength falter. His affair humiliated me. He can never know how badly he’s hurt me, too.

The buyers walk ahead of us, holding hands. The woman is decked out in a Trina Turk “Vanah” dress, diamonds and sapphires in her ears and around her neck and wrists, and cute platform espadrilles. Her husband is attractive in a Tom Hardy way and carries his success like Richard does—chin up, shoulders proud.

I can picture him—much like my soon-to-be ex—proudly moving into that home that has three times more space than any family needs. What he doesn’t yet know is that four stories and a dozen rooms make it too easy to slink away from each other for entire evenings. Bit by bit that disconnect—the physical space between each person—becomes the sort of emotional distance that loosens family bonds. Not that you see it happening in the moment.

I’ve often wondered whether Richard and I might’ve stayed together if we’d remained in the two-thousand-square-foot home we’d previously owned.

Questions like that keep me up nights.

A decade ago, we were excited. Happy. A young family on our way up. The problem with rising so high so fast? When you fall—and that fall will come, usually when you least expect it—you smack the ground so hard a part of you dies.

Once reanimated, you feel more like a roamer on The Walking Dead than a person.

Richard leans in as if he might kiss my cheek, but stops short when I flinch. “Good luck, Anne. Hope you don’t die of boredom in that small town.”

His condescension pricks the ugly bitterness that has blistered beneath my skin since his May confessional.

“Well, I survived life with you, so how bad can Potomac Point be?” I pat his shoulder twice. “Don’t worry about me. Save your energy for staying sane while Lauren has you stuck at home raising her young kids. I’ll be sure to send postcards from Paris and Prague to give you goals to look forward to in another twelve or fourteen years.”

I turn away and walk to my car without looking back so he can’t see my brave face slip. The truth is I’d wanted more kids but, after the agony of a late-term miscarriage, chose to focus all my love on Katy and her anxieties. Once she’d turned six, Richard no longer wanted to bring an infant into our lives. Another decision to regret, I suppose, because both Katy and I might be better off if we had another person in our shrinking family.

By the time my car door closes, fresh tears blur my vision. Contrary to my goal, I did not escape that closing with my dignity intact—behaving no better than my teen daughter.

It takes a bunch of tugging and a good lick to wrench my wedding rings from my finger. In the sunlight their dazzling sparkle is full of false promise, so I drop them into my purse. I stretch the fingers of my bare left hand, which now looks as unfamiliar as everything else about my undone life.

Richard wasn’t the husband I’d hoped he’d be, and ours hadn’t been the perfect marriage. But I’ve given so much of myself to that life that I can’t stand the way it’s ending. He’s skipping forward as if our years together meant nothing, leaving me behind on an uncertain path. Seeing him quickly—and happily—replace our family stings like an ice-cold shower.

I’ve been telling myself I’m not running. Telling myself that this move will be for the best.

Please, God, let me be right.

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