Some years, I gaze around the Thanksgiving table and I feel almost painfully grateful for my own bounty, for the abundance that is my life, for everything that brought me to this moment, with these people, inside this light.
And some years, I just eat turkey.
That Thanksgiving was off to a promising start. Jacob was at his most adorable, regaling us all with what, at five years old, was a new tale of Pilgrims and Indians and friendship. My husband Jonathon was the consummate host, topping off our friends Clayton and Tamara's wine glasses from the decanter, expertly cuing Jacob whenever he was about to struggle for a word or detail. Jonathon's mother was getting along with mine, meaning Sylvia wasn't openly disapproving of my mother. (Nothing feeds gratitude like lowered expectations.) And I thought, looking down at my swollen belly, about the party crasher inside, boy or girl, we didn't know yet. Jonathon and I wanted the surprise.
My happiness was magnified by this being our first Thanksgiving in our own home. I'd never had a dining room before, let alone a house, having grown up in small apartments with my mother and brother and then living in San Francisco, land of low square footage. Who knew I could get this much pleasure out of a dining room? Who knew I could be so happy living in the suburbs?
When Jonathon and I first had Jacob, we pledged to be urban to the end; we were going to raise street smart kids who'd osmotically pick up four languages by the time they were ten. We resisted suburbia for as long as we could, mourned the friends who had fallen, and sworn we'd never go to the dark side (meaning, shopping centers perennially anchored by Starbucks and Bed Bath & Beyond). We told each other that we loved the authenticity of our city block-i.e., the smells of sulfurous cooking and urine, the reek of real life-as we seemed to be in the only San Francisco neighborhood undergoing a de-gentrification. But my bubble of self-delusion burst the day I'd circled twenty minutes to find a parking space and as we walked along, Jacob asked a homeless man where his mommy was and the guy let out a string of invectives that followed us half a block. Since Jon and I couldn't afford a house in any decent city neighborhood, the burbs it was.
The phone rang, and Jonathon said he'd get it, he was already up. From the dining room, I could see into the kitchen, and I didn't expect Jon to reach out and shut the swinging door between the rooms. But it wasn't until he'd been gone a while, maybe as long as fifteen minutes, that it truly registered as anything out of the ordinary. It wasn't like Jon to disappear when there were people to attend to. What was going on? Could there have been an accident? Or-and fear gripped me most as this thought hit-what if something was wrong with Jon? A doctor calling with test results? A doctor wouldn't call on a holiday unless it was really bad, impending-coronary bad. That was how Jon's father had died, just keeled over at the age of 52. Of course, he'd been married to Sylvia, and that could weaken any man's heart.
I was prone to panicked worst-case scenarios when I was pregnant. In the later part of my pregnancy with Jacob and for much of the first year of his life, I turned into one of those people who couldn't watch the news. Jonathon and I developed a little ritual around it where I'd ask him for highlight reels. He'd tell me a bunch of true things and one that was made up and I'd have to guess the falsehood. He started really getting into it, reading different websites that specialized in true and wacky news items from around the world. It was surprisingly hard to guess the faux item. For example, there really were two blond twin girls who called themselves Prussian Blue singing perky songs about white supremacy, the Olsen twins of the White Nationalist Movement. Jon and I both loved the ritual, which served to divert me from some truly awful things that were occurring in the world, things utterly beyond my control, and reminded me of the fun and silliness and connection that we shared. It made me feel safe.
But right then, I was picturing Jon collapsed on the ceramic kitchen tiles, gasping for air (did people gasp when they were having coronaries?). I excused myself and pushed open the swinging door, relieved to see he wasn't lying prone but surprised that he wasn't in the kitchen at all. Maybe it's just hindsight, maybe it's too much TV-the did-I-put-the-dog-in-the-washing-machine-or-was-that-on-the-Brady-Bunch?-syndrome-but the rest of the house seemed eerily still in that moment and my stomach was pretzeled as I walked down the hall toward our bedroom. I don't think this next part is hindsight, I think it's memory: Though nothing in our marriage to that point indicated that I should, I was moving deliberately, stealthily, like I imagined a hunter would stalk big game. I could hear Jon's muffled voice behind the closed bedroom door. I don't know what made me put my ear up to it, but when I did, I heard Jonathon speaking to someone with great tenderness, saying things like, "Shhh, you're going to be okay. This day will be over soon. And you'll be just fine."
My heartbeat accelerated; I had to remind myself to breathe. There were two options, as I saw it: Continue eavesdropping, or open the door. Walking away was an impossibility. If I listened longer, he could say something like, "I love my wife more than anything in the world, and I have to get back to her." Or perhaps, "Henry..." Any man's name would be acceptable. Of course, there were those androgynous names like "Sam." Unless...?
I pushed the door open, and Jonathon looked up, his eyes widening. We held the gaze a few seconds, and then he said into the phone, "Hold on." To me, "I'm sorry this is taking so long. I'll be out in a minute."
Like it was an ordinary call. Could it be an ordinary call? I wanted to think that it was. But somehow, I didn't. That alone seemed damning, but of who? Of him? Of me? "Who is that?" I asked.
"It's just a friend," he said. Nothing strange in his tone, but that wording. Does anyone say ‘just a friend' if someone really is just a friend? Wouldn't you say the friend's name?
But this was Jonathon. He only had just friends. "Which friend?" I tried to make my tone match his, but failed.
He put his hand up to indicate it would be one more minute, and addressed the receiver again. "I need to go now, okay?"
Whoever was on the other end actually kept talking. I could make out a female voice, though I couldn't hear what she was saying. She prattled on at breakneck speed as I stood there waiting. I wasn't just waiting for her to stop talking; I was waiting for him to interrupt her. Who was this woman with the audacity to call my husband away in the middle of Thanksgiving, who hears my voice in the room, who hears him say he needs to go, and keeps talking?
But, I countered, maybe that was what made her harmless. Maybe she had the audacity because she didn't need to fear discovery, she didn't need to fear the wife. She was just a friend who was too upset on Thanksgiving to observe social graces.
I couldn't take it anymore. If he wouldn't interrupt, I would. "We have guests."
Jonathon mouthed the words "I'm sorry" in an exaggerated way, like we were sharing the joke of how some people can't take a hint. "I've really got to go now," he told her. "Take care of yourself, okay?" He clicked the disconnect button on the cordless phone. Then he turned to me and smiled. "Let's get back in there."
I couldn't stop hearing Shhh, you're going to be okay. It was the intimacy of that shhh; not how you shhh the loud guy behind you at the movie theater, but the way you quiet a distraught lover.
"Which friend did you say that was?" I asked.
"You don't know her. She's someone I know through work. She has a hard time at the holidays. She must have been going through her address book, seeing who'd answer the phone." Was his forehead shiny?
"That's weird, isn't it?"
He shrugged. "I guess she is. I don't know her very well."
I was staring at him, wanting him to say something, do something, anything that would loosen the grip of this terrible anxiety, to expunge all traces of that "Shhh" from my memory-some science fiction that would turn back the clock. But that was the problem; it seemed like fiction. "What's her name? Have I ever heard about her?"
He shook his head. "She doesn't work in the San Francisco office. She works out of Chicago."
Okay, that brought some scant relief. Three more factoids like that and maybe... "How do you know her?"
"I met her at a conference. You know, that corporate ‘Up with People' thing I had to go to last September." He walked toward me. "Aren't you the one who said we have guests?" he teased.
I froze. This was Jon, the man I'd loved for ten years, the father of my child, my children. My hand moved to my belly. Would he really cheat on me when I would be having his baby in just over a month? Would he really cheat on me, ever? That was the first time I'd actually allowed myself to think the word: cheat. Jon wasn't a cheat. Jon was a straight arrow, almost to a fault. He mailed back those pre-made address labels from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation if he wasn't giving a donation. This was the kind of thing I had chosen to find endearing rather than irritating, the kind of quirk I had chosen to love when I had chosen to love Jon for the rest of my life. Love was a choice that I made every day, quietly. Now that choice was mine again, only it was both thunderous and Technicolor. Would I choose to love Jon? Would I choose to ignore this screaming instinct inside me and believe him?
I nodded, and to Jon, that meant we would get back to the party as he'd suggested. In a thick, dreamlike state, I drifted back to the table with the battle between gut instinct and volitional love continuing to rage inside me. I reseated myself next to Jonathon and sipped my sparkling water and tried to rejoin the conversation like the good host, the loving wife.
Wine. I would have killed for some wine. One glass couldn't hurt this close to delivery; I'd been abstinent for the entire pregnancy, not a single slip-up. It wasn't like I was going to marinate my baby in the stuff. It would just be one glass. Maybe my baby could use a little alcohol right about now. Maybe some wine would be good for her heart. Or good for his stress level. I stifled a giggle of hysteria rather than amusement as I pictured our baby swimming around blissfully in a solution of two parts amniotic fluid to one part merlot. I could always explain it later if she (or maybe he) ever found out: "Mommy needed that one glass, sweetie pie. You see, she'd gone a little crazy thinking that Daddy might be cheating, but it turned out Daddy would never, ever do something like that to Mommy, to us. Because that would be really, really fucked up. Not just fucked up, even. We're talking colossally vile, we're talking duplicitous and loathsome. I mean, we're talking FUCKED UP here. We're talking about a life that's nothing but a lie. We're talking..."
My hand was nearly shaking as I reached for the decanter, earning me a glare from Sylvia. It was a look that said, "I always knew you were a good-for-nothing baby poisoner who doesn't deserve my son." Which, come to think of it, wasn't actually that different from how she normally looked at me. What I didn't need right then was a confrontation with Sylvia; I wouldn't be responsible for what came out of my mouth. I pretended I was reaching for the sweet potatoes instead, a maneuver that certainly didn't fool sharp-eyed Sylvia.
I tried to concentrate on the lighthearted chatter around me. Clayton (who'd gone to film school with hopes of being the next great auteur only to find himself a freelance infomercial director five years later) was describing a series of Youtube videos featuring Jacob. The idea was that Jacob was a troubled child star who kept failing rehab.
"So Jake's got his sunglasses on, and he's running to the car, and Tamara's his publicist, trying to hold back the paparazzi, and finally, he turns to the camera, all mournful-like, puts out a hand and says, ‘No press.' Show them, bud," he instructed Jacob.
To the laughter of the table, Jacob instantly adopted a world-weary expression and recited, "No press."
I forced a smile and looked at Jonathon, who was obviously doing the same. The fact that Jon seemed off-kilter was not comforting to me. If he really had been talking to a friend-a friend his wife didn't know about, but just a friend nonetheless-would he seem shaken afterward? Noticing me, he steadied his rickety smile and reached for his sparkling water. He never drank alcohol around me during my pregnancies in a show of solidarity. Was that all we were? A show?
At that thought, I hoisted myself to my feet. "Excuse me," I said. "Jon, could you come with me, please?"
"And cut!" I could hear Jacob exclaiming as I left the room. He loved directorial lingo.
Jon followed me to the bedroom and closed the door behind us. I remained standing for two reasons: The first was that I was hoping this would be fast, I wanted to get my reassurance and get out; the second was that my pregnancy hemorrhoids had been acting up all damn day. I refused to sit on my special pillow in front of company.
I squared my shoulders. "I'm asking you, please don't lie to me," I said. "Please don't."
He nodded, eyes filled with concern. Whether it was the concern of a cheater about to get caught or of a man whose wife is cracking up was as yet unclear.
I took a deep breath. "Are you cheating with that woman on the phone?"
"No," he said immediately.
"Then who was that on the phone?"
"I told you. A friend."
"A friend who knew she could call you on Thanksgiving, and that you'd talk to her?"
"What was I supposed to do? She was crying. She needed help." He raked a hand through his hair. "I'm not cheating. I wouldn't cheat."
He looked so earnest. He looked so Jonathon. But I'd heard the way he talked to her. It didn't add up. "So who is this woman, exactly?"
"I told you. A friend." There was something almost hypnotic in his repetition, and his tone was so soothing.
Wait a minute! He was soothing me like he'd soothed her. "I heard you earlier. The way you were telling her it would be okay. You were talking to her like a lover."
"I'm not her lover." His eye contact never wavered. "We talk on the phone sometimes, that's all. I'm sorry I never told you about her. We met at the conference, we went to lunch a few times, we exchanged e-mail addresses, and that was it. She's just a friend."
There it was again, that "just." I knew he was lying. It was so strong, this sense, strong enough to override all that I'd known for the past ten years. Strong enough to override what I wanted so desperately to believe. "So you met her over a year ago, but she still calls you?" He said nothing, as if it had been a rhetorical question. I suddenly felt like I was cross-examining a hostile witness. "How often do you talk to her?"
That's when he broke eye contact. "We don't talk all that often," he said.
"I can get phone bills."
"We've been talking more lately," he amended.
Oh, God. "How often?"
"She gets depressed at the holidays, I told you. She needed someone to tell her she'd be okay, and that's what I did. That's all I did."
"How often?" I pressed, my voice tight with anger. I had begged him not to lie, and here he was, lying to my face.
"Lately it's been once a week. Sometimes more."
"That's more than you talk to Clayton!" Finally, I had proof of something, but I didn't yet know what.
"She's been lonely lately. We mostly just send e-mails."
"How often do you e-mail?"
He looked immediately sorry he'd opened up the e-mail line of inquiry. "Sometimes."
"I asked how often, and don't lie. Because if I have to get your computer hacked myself, I'll find out."
"Pretty much every day," he said reluctantly.
"But there's nothing physical between us. I wouldn't do that."
I actually believed that. But I was thinking about how Jon used to write me long, hilarious e-mails filled with the minutiae of his day, and how much I had loved them. I hadn't had a digest like that in months. They were all going to her. "What's her name? The other woman. What's her fucking name?"
"Are they long?" He looked confused so I added impatiently, "The e-mails."
"Like the ones you used to send me."
He finally had the decency to look fully abashed. "Yes."
"Is Laney pretty?"
He clearly didn't want to answer that, which meant yes.
"Do you want to fuck Laney?"
"I told you, I wouldn't--"
"But do you want to fuck Laney?"
His silence answered again. Then he pulled himself together enough to say, "I only want to be with you. With you and Jacob. And with-" he reached for my belly, and I moved away reflexively. I could tell that hurt him. Good. Reach out again, and I'll hurt you some more.
"I just want to make sure I understand," I said. "You e-mail this woman every day, you talk to her at least once a week, you comfort her on holidays, you wish you could fuck her. But she lives in Chicago, so you can't." I paused. "Did I leave anything out?"
During the staring contest that ensued, I found myself wondering how we had landed here. Just the week before, we had finished our birthing classes. With Jacob, I'd gone the epidural route but this time, we were going natural. We'd chosen the Bradley Method instead of Lamaze because it focused more on the husband's coaching. Also, with Bradley, you learned to go through the pain rather than simply distract yourself. I pictured us in class, how Jon had doodled cartoons for me during the boring parts. I remembered the first day when we were asked to rate our commitment to a drug-free birth, 0 being no commitment and 10 being absolute commitment, and we each wrote our number on a three-by-five card and when instructed, presented it to the other like we were on the Newlywed Game. When we saw that we had both written 4, we whooped and high-fived, and then laughed at the uneasy smiles of the other couples, who had rated themselves 9s and 10s. How could Jon do this to me? I couldn't handle this much pain. Didn't he remember I was only a 4?
"I don't want any other woman," Jonathon said. "I mean, if anything, you should feel sorry for her. She's thirty-three and single and she would kill for what you have."
"OH MY GOD!!!" I exploded. "Have you lost your mind, saying that to me? You want me to feel sorry for her?"
"I want you to have some perspective here. I didn't do anything with her."
So Jon had turned into Bill Clinton. Or at best, that other one... Which president was it who said he'd only been unfaithful in his mind? My husband was unfaithful in his mind for over a year. He deliberately hid Laney from me, and he gave her the things that should have been mine, the things I had always assumed were mine. I thought of all the moments of excitement we had shared during the pregnancy, and all the while, he had Laney. Maybe the night we conceived our baby, he'd been thinking of her.
Before I knew it was happening, I vomited. All over my shoes, all over the carpet. I started crying wildly, with shame, outrage, fury, sadness. I crumpled to the floor; I didn't have the strength in my legs to keep standing.
Jonathon sank down beside me and pushed my hair back. It was such a tender gesture-the kind I was used to-and I needed it, even though accepting any ministration from him right then felt tawdry. It felt weak. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry." There were tears in his eyes.
"You can't stay here tonight," I said.
He looked surprised. I guess he had thought that the weeping and vomiting had reduced me to a state of pure vulnerability. "We just need to talk more," he said. "I'm sorry for what I did. I'll cut her off. It's done. Okay?"
"You're asking if it's okay?" I drew myself up to my knees, willing myself to stand. Just a few more seconds and I'd be able to stand.
"No, I'm not saying what I did is okay. I'm saying-"
"I can't be around you right now. So you can't stay." Finally I was on my feet, and feeling a strange calm. An out of body calm.
Causes Holly Shumas Supports
International Red Cross
Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Environmental Defense Fund