Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Empty Nest

 

Excerpted from the in-progress linked collection, Joy, Somewhere in the City

Laine was in the passenger seat, her husband Gerald at the wheel, when he confessed he'd been sleeping with another woman. She folded up the papery New Jersey map, keeping the creases where they belonged, even smoothing down the seams before she started screaming.

Their car sped along the Turnpike on the way home from the airport, where they had just dropped their daughter Maya at the British Airways counter, yielding her to the Crown for a post grad year at Oxford. Their older son Alex, who had lived with them at home after college, had flown off to Berlin for a consulting job. Laine was alone—not just in the house, but on the continent. Gerald had used her long name: “Elaine, I’m sorry to tell you this way.”

The leather seat stuck to the bottom of her thighs. They both wore sunglasses to contend with the early autumn glare. Perhaps that's why he'd chosen that moment, she surmised later. Because of the partitions put between them, and between each one of them and the rest of the world, by those thick shades.

For part of the drive she engaged in a few vigorous rounds of shouting and screaming “are you fucking kidding me?” and its variations. He winced and muttered in response.

But she was even angrier once the shock wore off. In her mind, she floated outside the car and could see the two of them sitting there, two middle-aged parents, hollering, mouths open, saw the overwhelming indignity of his timing. Maya was still sitting in the departures lounge; they had been true empty nesters for less than an hour. He must have timed his affair for this moment, with children out of their reach, unable to leap to the defense of their wronged mother.

 And how clever of him to tell her now. One couldn’t jump out of a car in the middle of New Jersey. As to which of them would do the jumping, what difference would it make? One of them would be gone, and the other of them wouldn’t.

"Are you trying to turn us into a cliché?" she shouted. "Our last kid leaves home for good and not two hours later you announce that you’ve got a midlife crisis lined up and ready to go?"

“I'm not telling you now because of Maya,” he said. “I'm telling you because it's going to be,” this time he cringed in the old familiar way, “It’s going to be, um, in the papers soon. Someone got wind of it,” he said. “I’m so sorry, Laine.”

Laine bit down hard on her lip.

 

She and Gerald were celebrities—if you could call them that—in their insular, backbiting world of New York media. She was a radio host and he was a top editor at a major publishing house. But Laine and Gerald were classy. They were. They avoided these sordid, gossipy things. She never even read the Post, except when her producers required it of her.

She crumpled up the folded map and threw it into the backseat. She crossed her arms over her chest, like a teenager, like their teenagers often had. She stared straight ahead and said nothing. He ought to do the hard work; he should have to bring up all the questions he wanted her to ask.

Who is she? How long? Are you leaving me? Or am I leaving you?

No tears formed, nothing pricked at the corner of her eyes. Laine rarely cried—everyone knew her to be a cool analytical type. So instead she began to probe, straight away, the choice she'd made to link herself to Gerald, to bear his children, to tie her fate to that of a man, she'd long since realized, who saw the whole world, who even saw her, through a thick screen of self, blocking out the world’s needs as he avoided her now with his sunglasses.

She adjusted her own Ray Bans. Why should his Ray Bans have the upper hand?

Gerald, as she predicted, couldn't bear her silence. He spoke up and told her all, in serious tones, while he kept his focus studiously on the road. It turned out that the woman was one of Gerald's authors, a rising young star at his publishing house. She'd written a self-help book called “Be Your Skinny Jeans Self” currently skyrocketing up the Times bestseller list.

He drove perhaps too fast, now. She put a hand on his shoulder, as usual, to slow him down.

Gerald and the woman had been seeing each other for about four months, and he’d been planning to break it off with her, he really had, and as to what would happen now, Gerald intoned, he just didn't know. He needed some time to think. “A Page Six item is coming tomorrow,” he admitted.

Elaine snorted.

"Is it a blind item?” she spat. "I can't believe I have to ask that, like some fallen Disney starlet." The sun burned golden on the swamplands rushing past the windows of the car. A few bushes and trees had turned red at the edges, blood-like spots on the endless expanse of telephone poles, swamps, and grass.

“Yes, I think so,” he said. “My friend at the Post told me so when he tipped me off. It wouldn't be recognizable to like, Joe Schmoe in Kansas.”

"But all our friends will know, won’t they?” she said.

"Probably. I don’t know.”

"You could have been a bit more discreet," she said, sensing a snide tone creep into her own voice.

“I'm glad you're more concerned about your reputation than our marriage," he replied. “I’ve always admired your professionalism.”

“Well I'm glad you're now blaming me for not caring about our marriage after you’ve just shit all over our wedding vows with a bimbo self-help guru who’s buttering you up for the next advance. What do you think, mid to high six figures?” she said. He blanched.

“I’ll say it again,” she continued, sensing the opening he’d provided. “I feel like I'm in the opening scene of a—of a chick flick for the menopausal set. Diane Keaton should play me.  Or Jamie Lee Curtis, maybe. I can't wait for some Matthew McConaughey clone to amble in and bring laughter back into my wrinkled life."

Gerald laughed, and so did she. Then she tried to turn away from him, uncomfortably twisting against the seatbelt. Her sharp humor had brought him to her, had caught his attention so many years ago. She knew his thoughts were the same. She knew his thoughts. She knew he admired her, and it came as no surprise that it should hurt her to know it.

"I’m not telling the kids," she said firmly. “You are. Before their friends do. Or god forbid, before their grandparents do. Tonight.” His silence acknowledged that telling Maya and Alex was indeed his burden. And she thought to herself: Why am I so tough now, after all these years of letting Gerry be Gerry? Gerry with his damn sunglasses. She reached over and removed them from his face, startling him so much he nearly drove over the median. Then she fitted them back over his face again.

And without warning she felt it, beneath the frustration and fury, beneath the resentment and worry about what people would think. She felt him crawling out of the place in her where he’d dwelt for so long. Loss gnawed against her. She pulled her sunglasses over her eyes in silent anguish at the decisions they’d have to make.

 

She had met Gerald when she was 33, beginning to make a name for herself at NPR. He was a notoriously powerful not to mention eligible nonfiction editor, and he’d called her up out of the blue to tell her how hilarious her spot mocking Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals was that morning, and would she consent to have a drink with him?

A series of boyfriends in the media world had paraded into her bed, and her life, and they’d all turned out to be assholes. Gerald possessed a sweetness, an affectionate innocence, that was so different from them. On one level, he treated her better than anyone she’d ever been around. He loved to cuddle with her under a big blanket on her couch and run his hands through the hair she spent pained minutes ironing each morning—and he was so proud of her radio prowess he positively blazed with it. She had thought it unselfish for a man like Gerald, clearly such a player himself. She assumed it was because of his age, because at 40 he had attained a level of security.

She had ignored it when the wife of a friend of theirs, drunk to truth-serum levels on Pinot Grigio, had leaned across the dinner table one evening and asked her “what it’s like to be swept under the cloak of Gerald Siegel’s massive ego? Gratifying, I bet, but smothering too.” Envy, Laine had thought at the time, dismissing this woman who spent her husband’s ample fortune lobbying politicians for all sorts of domestic violence and abortiony kind of issues. Everything fits into her stupid militant narrative, Laine thought. The woman simply couldn’t imagine a man being kind, much less a man like Gerald. But years later, as she noticed the way he took on the kids—pigeonholing them by their interests, their talents—that she began to wonder if the woman hadn’t been right, if Gerald’s pride in her didn’t have more to do with him than with her. She wondered if she was Gerald’s intellectual trophy wife, while Maya was his soccer-playing, poetry writing arm and Alex his arm who was good with numbers. Together, she imagined, he saw them as some sort of super-Gerald squid.

And there was a flip side to the self-absorption. Humor, soccer, poetry, math—these subjects he got.

But he couldn’t quite latch on to the parts of the children that were beyond the realm of school. “Wow, look at them,” he’d often say, but the subtext was I didn’t sign up for organic farming; I didn’t sign up for the WWF Wrestlemania and bad sitcoms, and cheeto stains on my suits. “What’s new in your world?” he’d ask, but then his eyes would skip nervously past what they answered. Her burgeoning realization had spread like a silent, years-long fissure. Particularly with Alex, their oldest, who claimed to see right through his dad, the conflict had been almost unbearable. Alex had gone to boarding school by choice, chased out by his dad’s encroaching largeness, his need for attention. Poor Alex loathed writing and wasn’t particularly verbal, not an easy thing not to be in their household, and Gerald had regarded this as a threat to himself

She shook her head, thinking about the way her boy used to scream at Gerald—“You have a fucking narcissistic personality disorder, dad.”

 

Gerald slowed the car in pre-tunnel traffic and Laine saw, ahead of them, a Princeton sticker in the rear window of another car, just like theirs. Would Gerald have been happy if one of the kids had followed him to his alma mater there? She had secretly encouraged them in a less traditional, more artsy direction. Had that been her sin?

“You’re shaking your head. Is it at me?” Gerald asked.

“I’m thinking about the kids, actually,” she said. She marveled: there had been years and years of “is it me? Have I done something?” which she had taken to be humble neuroses. But maybe such queries were a need to put himself at the center of every drama. Just as, she surmised, his dalliance with Skinny Jeans came from the same desire.

Each road sign rose ahead of them in successive phases of illumination as the sun set, glaring, then muted, then grayish rose, and still he kept on his sunglasses, as if to face off the dusk with an end of the day all his own.

At last they were in Manhattan and out of traffic, zooming home up the Westside Highway. The light had faded to purple. The river glowed beneath the George Washington Bridge.

“I love you, you know,” he said. “I couldn’t live without you.”

“You should have thought about it before you unzipped Ms. Skinny Jeans,” she said with a sigh. “I’m not a pair of Mom Jeans, Gerald. You can’t just do this.”

He laughed, and said in a tone that was overcompensating, perhaps, in its contrition, “I’m so, so, so, sorry. I know I fucked up.”

He probably expected she would stay with him after it all died down. She wondered if she expected the same thing.

“I’m not talking to you,” she said, and she didn’t for the rest of the ride back.

 

At home, she stalked into the room that served as her office, picking up the manuscript of an anthology of humorous essays by women. She began to mark up the margins, as focused as she was furious in her intensity. She put on opera, which Gerald hated; this served as her "do not disturb" sign. A laughable notion: Gerry, not disturbing her. A few times she had to lay her work aside and fold her hands across her chest, like a corpse in its coffin. Her wounded heart seeped pain into her limbs, her back; her cheeks flamed with indignation and mortification, and beneath it something worse: a cavernous, gaping bereavement.

When she bought a Post the next day, her newsman on the corner of 68th and Lex looked at her no differently than usual. If this were a movie, she imagined, she'd be greeted by herself on the cover of a magazine as the new face of scorned older women everywhere and the newsman would shake his head in recognition. But the truth was this man would never know, and the people on the street would never know. The crowd of coats and hats on the 6 train would remain oblivious that, to quote the Post, the one and same “beloved radio personality being made to look a fool as her big-time editor husband cavorts with a hot authorial prospect” rode in their midst. She crossed her still slender ankles, feeling thankful for small mercies.

When she arrived at the studio, slid into her chair, adjusted her mic, and smiled at the young intern bringing her coffee—as she did each day—she lost the refuge of anonymity. Here, people knew what her husband did for a living. They knew, she thought wryly, that she was “beloved.” They had made her so. She tried to ascertain the significance in everyone's look, the arch of the brows, the curl at the corner of their lips. But it was a futile exercise. She was a rational person so she rationally understood that this news was making her irrational, making her see things, conjuring signs that weren’t there. Crazy. She groaned: the Broadway actress she was meant to interview in half an hour was Rina, Maya’s longtime friend who had graduated NYU and gone straight into theater. The city could be such a village.

Laine anchored a regular half-hour segment on arts and culture on the morning show of the public radio station. It was said that all literate people in NYC listened to Laine at least once a week on their morning commutes, or while making toast and coffee beforehand. Today, she wished she were a schoolteacher, a train conductor, anyone but herself.

Rina breezed into the studio; the women embraced, Laine clucked maternally.

“How was seeing Maya off?” asked Rina. This girl who had once lain across Laine’s floor in overalls and pigtails was now sensually perky; her crimson scarf trailed behind her like a tail. Today, her youth repulsed Laine, recalling Ms. Skinny Jeans to her. But as Rina settled in her chair, something steely in her made her hard to dislike. Her limbs were long, yes, but bulging, defined muscles poked out of her feminine clothes. She had worked for this. In her performance in a downtown rock musical about to move to 42d street, Rina swung a leg alluringly around the microphone stand and belted out songs; she exuded a sort of primal feminine strength mixed with just a touch of vulnerability. She was star material even if the critics didn’t quite see it yet, since they were still dubious about her NYU pedigree, her youth, her “cloying earnestness” in the words of one. The two women sat across from each other as the technicians adjusted their headphones, microphones, postures. Just before the show began, Rina leaned over to touch Laine's arm and said, without a trace of irony, “I’ve always admired you so much, you know, as a woman in the arts and as a woman, period. You’re a role model. I support you in every way. Thank you for inviting me to do this.” Rina had read the Post, Laine realized, and everyone in the office probably had too.

Laine looked hard at this girl, pictured Maya's legs dangling off the edge of the iron frame bed of some distant Oxford dorm room, kicking the air just as they’d done at home; and asked herself, “am I not even allowed to feel that? My kids thousands of miles across the ocean?" and the tears suddenly began gushing up out of nowhere. She wavered and closed her eyes and held them there, and took a giant breath, and suddenly there was Rina, handing her a pair of sunglasses without a word.

They were on the air in five, four, three…

So, her eyes shaded, protected, she proceeded to verbally joust with Rina about the hot pants and heels she wore onstage, and her voice lessons and the challenge of the score’s musical range; and then when they were done she kissed Rina on the cheek and walked her to the door. A commercial, then a plea for donations, came on air.

She read the arts and entertainment news, plugged the next show, fake-smiled at the microphone.

After it was over and the technicians gave her the thumbs up, she went into the women's room and tucked her feet up above the toilet and sobbed silently, soaking sheet after sheet of toilet paper, dropping them in the bowl. Even then she felt proud of her own toughness, because no one could hear her.

What was going to happen? Would he stay? Would she go? Would he go? What did she want them to do?

She was a rational woman. She didn't care about the sex, really. He'd always had a bit of a Woody Allen thing going on when it came to sex—a little neurotic, a little obsessed, a few too many pathetic hang-ups. So it didn’t shock her that he'd lust after some buxom construct. But what his affair indicated: the fault line running beneath the surface of the marriage, his absurd idea that she would help put everything back together with her fucking competence, an imposition she had allowed for too long, that dug into her, that would leave its mark on her, that maybe already had.

 

"Mom? Is it true?" Maya’s voice sounded tinny and removed through Skype. Her face wavered in an out of focus. It was lunchtime, and Laine sat at her desk sorting through emails.

“Oh shit. You haven't heard from your father?"

"I was supposed to hear from him?’ Maya asked. “So it's true, then. Rina emailed me. She saw it in the Post. She said you seemed dazed this morning.”

Laine took a deep breath.

“Shit. He was supposed to call you last night. It was the only thing I asked of him. He's so helpless—I mean, I’m sorry, darling. So sorry that this should be affecting you. Everything’s going to be fine. I promise you. You know I’ve got things under control. You just focus on your Modernist lit and let me and your father work out his midlife crisis. Okay? Just don’t drink too much and use a condom every time, darling,” she said, trying to get her daughter to laugh, though Laine realized she probably sounded desperate.

“Mom! This isn’t funny. This is just—I can’t. Maybe Alex is right and our father is a horrible excuse for a human being,” her voice wavered. Maya was a such a girl. She adored her father. They all did. “That was all you asked of him? Nothing else?”

Laine pursed her lips. “Your father worships you,” was all she had to say in response. “He made a mistake, is all and we’re going to deal with it. You shouldn’t use this as an excuse to stay attached to your dysfunctional family now that you’re at Oxford. You have to trust me. Now don’t you have to go to some sort of Shakespearean rugby or beer drinking society meeting?”

“Mom,” said Maya. “You’re ridiculous to defend him when you have us on your side. What is wrong with you? I’m calling Alex, not Skyping, and I’m not using a calling card. I’ll send Dad the bill.”

Good, thought Laine, because I’m failing right now as a mother, and you and your sibling need each other.

Gerald had caused her to fail this way. Gerald would make her seem weak in her daughter’s eyes.

Active rage finally enveloped her, enough to enable a choice. Laine had anticipated a return of sensation at some point; now it had returned with a vengeance; she abhorred him. She’d subsumed herself to this marriage for far too long, absurd as it seemed given her career, but she had. Her kids were out, and she wanted out too.

“I know this is a random question,” she asked her literary agent, who knew everyone, on the phone. “But do you know any divorce lawyers?”

“That’s not random at all,” said the agent with a sly lift in her voice. “And good for you.”

Everyone really did read the Post.

 “Also,” she asked her agent. “Whom do you know at Page Six, and how can I reach her and tell her exactly what I’m doing—or would you do me the honor?”

“Double good for you,” her agent said. “Let me make a call.”

Laine stayed at the office until nine, ordering Chinese takeout and hiding behind her computer. She had seen the staff members, in profile, pausing outside her door all day, felt the hush descend when she walked to the cooler.

When the hour grew late enough she trudged home. Gerald had been home, the doorman said, but he’d left again. Laine smiled, tightly. The building staff had probably known for months. How did they choose their loyalties? Had it been Laine having the affair, would they have let slip a clue to Gerald?

In the apartment, taking advantage of the respite, Laine moved a few nightgowns and toiletries and changes of underwear into Maya’s room and locked the door. Her chosen fate was to lie in her daughter’s single bed that night with the light on, staring up in the glare at posters of British rockers from the 90s, all slanty haircuts and scowls. A few teddy bears and china animals lingered on the shelves, blanketed with dust. So she remained inert there even when she heard Gerald come home and shuffle around, loudly, clumsily, looking for his sunglasses, which she had taken rather venomously with her into Maya’s bed. She had placed them sideways on the pillow so that they would face her, but they kept flopping over, as though she couldn’t look the situation in the eyes.

She must be strong in her resolve to stay away from Gerald and his hangdog face and his soft hugs and his eyes lighting up when she entered the room—or hiding behind the slick glare of the lenses, being gazed at by something that couldn’t see her. She had to make her choice alone, in this hard, narrow bed. Well, hard metaphorically, anyway--they had loved Maya enough to buy her a nice mattress.

After a fitful few hours of sleep, Laine gave in to insomnia and walked into the kitchen. She called her friend Sharon, who lived twenty blocks north and would be up at dawn for pilates.

“It's a mistake, honey,” Sharon said. “He made a mistake.”

“But he publicly humiliated me. Everyone in the city knows.”

“Okay, so people in your office know. Big whoop. In New York, that kind of publicity is only a good thing. Plus he's a sweet man. Plus plus, this happens to most people, only they’re not famous enough to get written up about.” Sharon said. “Men just do this when they get older. And you were lucky to catch him when you did.”

“Catch him? I didn’t catch him in flagrante delicto, Shar. That would have traumatized me for life.”

“Ha ha Laine. I meant catch as get him to marry you. You always say that. He pursued you without even knowing what you looked like. I find that so romantic,” she said.

 “My picture was in the newspaper,” said Laine, “I’m sure he knew what I looked like,” but she heard the defeat in her voice, a metallic weight pushing out her words.

The narrative of her having been alone for all those years before he rescued her from some version of contemporary spinsterhood proved difficult to elude.

Was it too late to call the divorce lawyer, to call Page Six, and take it all back, just like she’d taught the kids to symbolically suck regretted words back in with a big intake of breath? Whoosh--all was forgiven.

Sharon’s points could be acknowledged—she had been lucky to meet him. He was sweet. But he also, as Alex reminded her in an email from Berlin later that day, “doesn’t give two shits about anyone. I admit that on my good days I love Dad a lot,” he wrote, “but you seriously need to consider whether he’s dragging you down, mom. Maya and I will side with you, of course,” he wrote (how thoughtful). “PS the beer here is off the hook mom.”

“Sounds delicious, and wonderful. Soak it all up, but watch out for anyone who uses the phrase ‘master race’ or lebensraum,” she wrote in response.

Holocaust jokes. She was sinking to a new low.

Laine doubted that Maya would adjust to a split easily, despite her daughter’s righteous-babe posturing. She had left home and now home was breaking up? What a nightmare. The therapy sessions would rack up quickly.

What a paradox she faced. If they stayed together, Gerry would be lonely, kept apart in familial exile. If she left him, she’d be the shrewish career woman who drove him into the arms of someone else, someone fun and vivacious. Any initial triumph would give way to bitterness, solitude.

She paced the living room with a glass of sherry in her hand, touching the spines of their library. 24 hours ago he had told her. Yesterday Maya had been here.

Now it was so still, so abruptly. No kids, no husband. No Maya kicking her ball against the wall of her room, or Alex playing videogames, or cellphones buzzing with text messages and computers beeping with chats.

“I’m talking to a lawyer,” she texted Gerald. “Thought u should know.”

“Please, can we talk?” he asked. “Coming home in a few.”

She responded by pouring a fifth of vodka, which was his alcoholic beverage of choice, into his favorite plant—the one he expected her to water every day.

She would leave him, she swore; she would be like Nora in “A Doll’s House.” The family breakup would hurt her daughter now, but she’d be setting a good example.

She flopped down on the couch, stretched out her legs, and leaned back, reveling in the prospect of freedom. Why not take a nap now, and think later? Yes, with no meals to fix, no wounds to soothe, why couldn’t she nap, tipsily, on the couch?

Tomorrow, Sunday, a new item would grace Page Six. She had told her agent to place that call. Her name would be in bold. It would say she’d lawyered up. There would be fallout. That would be tomorrow. She closed her eyes, whispered to herself, “it’s okay, Laine. It’s okay,” and slid out of consciousness.

 

The phone ringing through the darkness of the early morning awoke her. She tossed off Alex’s fleece blanket (where had it come from?) and ran to answer it. The acrid smell of alcohol was thick in the air. Gerald had come home.

“Hello?”

She could barely hear Sharon through the gulping sobs on the other end of the line. “It’s Rina,” said Sharon. “She fainted in front of a train tonight and fell on the tracks—she’s gone. Cameron’s with her parents now. Oh, Laine, this is the worst thing that has ever happened. The worst, the worst…”

Laine collapsed on the floor in a howl, the phone between her neck and chin, and shook with horror. Impossible. She had seen Rina just yesterday, full of vim.

But possible, because anything was. Anything could be obliterated in an instant. A marriage, a life, a family.

No one would care about their divorce now, a thought buzzed into her mind, and she swatted it away. She didn’t care about their divorce now. Poor Maya. Her sweet daughter, who would have to fly home again, to bear witness. Laine’s voice came out in coughs, her words came out as retching. Her face was soaked already.

Then Gerald came in, and swept her up in his arms. There was no other way to describe it. He took the phone, told Sharon she’d call back. He instructed her to lie down. He held her on the couch, and began to speak to her, to calm her, to reassure her.

His baritone voice filled up the apartment that was both of theirs, at least for now.