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"The great question . . . which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is `What does a woman want?’”—Sigmund Freud
It’s been two days since Halloween, and as of lunchtime today, Mickey’s head has a clean bill of health. Not a louse in site. Tomorrow he’s back in school.
To celebrate—and to rid ourselves of the cabin fever we’re experiencing—Mickey and I sneak out with our Labrador, Harvey, to Paradise Park while school is still in session. I figure this is okay, since there will be no one there to infect, anyway.
I'm wrong. Little Temple Wilder is playing alone on the swing set. Even before we are spotted, we can hear her plaintive plea: “Daddy, you said you'd push me! Please? PRETTY PLEASE, WITH SUGAR AND WHIP CREAM AND SPRINKLES ON TOP?”
Harry, the sleeves of his crisp Oxford button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, is mumbling authoritatively into his Bluetooth. Sunlight brings to life the glints of gold in his gently tousled hair. He places a fingertip to his lips in the hope of willing her into silence, but Temple isn’t buying it. Patience is rarely a virtue found in five-year-olds.
Spotting us, he gives me a look that promises the world if I can guarantee him a few minutes of her silence, not to mention that of their Airedale, Lucky, whose barking at Harvey. Harry is a novice when it comes to negotiating with a mommy who has been housebound with an antsy boy for almost a week. But knowing his plight and feeling his pain, I give Temple a push that sends her giggling skyward, and then I do the same for my son. Harry bows in gratitude.
A half hour later, Harry pulls off his Bluetooth for good to find Temple and my son playing nicely together on the climbing gym. Mickey has gotten over his wariness of girl cooties (imaginary), and Temple is reassured that Mickey’s cooties (real, but gone) won’t be invading her full head of sun-kissed sateen curls. All is right in the world.
Harry smiles his unabashed gratitude. “Sorry. East Coast,” he says, by way of explanation. “Had to catch those guys before they go home for the day.”
I nod understandingly, and then stick out my hand. “Lyssa Harper. We’ve met before.”
Vagueness clouds his eyes. “Sure, I remember. You’re the Stuckeys’ au pair, right?”
I don’t know whether to be flattered or miffed. True, both the au pair and I have long dark hair, although mine is somewhat curlier. Okay, make that frizzy. And yes, it strokes my ego to be compared to a mere woman-child some ten years younger (not to mention ten pounds lighter). It’s more likely that he’s suggesting that I don’t seem worthy enough to live in Paradise Heights—unless I’m in someone’s domestic employ.
Only in my wildest fantasies would I assume that this is his way of hitting on me. Still, the thought of being picked up on the playground by the neighborhood DILF (the "dad I'd like to—." well, you get the picture) does give me a cheap thrill.
Then it hits me: What if he’s asking because he thinks he can buy my services, which would leave the Stuckeys high and dry? Ouch! And those twins of theirs are a handful--
Gee, I wonder how much he’s offering, anyway?
Turns out he’s not offering at all. He just doesn’t remember meeting Ted and me at the Crawleys’ Christmas party last year. Or sharing a picnic table with us this past summer at the Paradise Heights Annual July Fourth picnic. Or that we were the ones who found Lucky after he escaped under their fence in order to chase after the Corrigan’s tabby.
My God, as oblivious as this guy is, I’m surprised he remembers his way home.
Then again, maybe he doesn’t. That might be why DeeDee had an affair in the first place.
"Um . . .no. I'm just a mom here in the Heights."
As my black-and-white image of the Wilders gradates to chiaroscuro in the harsh light of reality, Harry tries to make amends for forgetting how many times our paths have crossed by complimenting me on how well my son plays with Temple.
Now it’s my turn to blush. I’m not used to hearing compliments about Mickey from other parents, only pointed remarks about how much more “rambunctious” he is than their own perfect progeny. “Thanks,” I stammer, then add, “I think his patience comes from having a younger sister.”
“Oh yeah? My son isn’t half that great with Temple. Of course he’s somewhat older, a teenager.” He gives a conciliatory laugh. “You know how they are.”
“I know your son.” Surprised, he blinks, then leans away slightly. He seems wary of what I might say next, so I continue gently, “Jake, right? He’s a sweet boy, too. He and my son, Tanner, play together on the basketball team. Very few of Tanner’s friends let Mickey join in when they come over to shoot hoops. You know how they can be: snubbing kids who are younger, or not as well coordinated. But Jake doesn’t seen to mind.”
Harry nods uncertainly. “Well, I’m glad to hear he’s not so—so judgmental all the time.”
“I never thought of it that way. I just think some kids instinctively know what to do with younger children.” Upon hearing this, Harry frowns. Quickly I add, “I’m not saying that that’s a good thing or a bad thing. In fact, I think it shows that, some day, they’ll make pretty good parents.”
Harry stares off in stony silence. As we sit quietly, I wonder what I’ve said wrong.
On the other hand, what does it matter? It’s my guess that he will forget our conversation the minute we gather up the kids and say our awkward good-byes. And the next time we meet, be it in the carpool line, or at a school function, or a neighbor’s party, he’ll vaguely wonder what the Stuckeys’ au pair has done with the usually caterwauling twins.
Right then and there I make up my mind that that is not going to happen, that I’m going to make a big enough impression on him that my name will finally be emblazoned on his brain, or at the very least that I crack his typically icy demeanor just this once.
Suddenly I remember another thing we have in common: our daughters.
“So, you’ve decided to give Temple a day off from school? In fact, my daughter, Olivia, is in preschool with Temple. Every now and then I let her do that, too. Kindergarten can be so overwhelming for little kids, even with a year or two of preschool under their belts. It’s not like they’re missing calculus, or anything really important, right? And the trade-offs are some wonderful memories. To be honest, though, I hate when it’s called ‘quality time,’ don’t you? I mean, every second with your child is memorable. Even watching them while they sleep is precious–”
I’ve been blathering so much I hadn’t noticed that Harry is crying.
The tears roll down his face in two steady lines. He turns his head toward me so that the children don’t see this, but my look of shock must be just as dismaying to him because he ends up burying his face in his hands.
And sobs even harder.
Harry Wilder, captain of industry, neighborhood enigma, one half of Paradise Heights’ Perfect Couple, is now a puddle of mush.
And it's all my doing.
Out of habit I still carry Handi Wipes. Although they aren’t ideal in situations like this, I can tell that Harry is appreciative for anything that will sop up this mess that is now his life.
When he's able to face me again, he looks me in the eye. “My wife left me. She’s left us.”
At this point I could feign ignorance, but since we’re both striving for honesty here, I have no desire to muck things up with a polite albeit face-saving (for him) lie, a “Gee! Look how late it’s getting” exit line, and another year or two of polite neighborly oblivion. Instead, I nod and say, “Yeah, I heard. On Halloween. I’m—I’m so sorry about it.”
“You know about it? But I—I haven’t said anything to anyone, yet! And she’s—she’s long gone, so I know it didn’t come from her.” He shakes his head at the thought that his personal soap opera is being bandied about the local Starbucks. “Jesus! And I thought news moved fast on Wall Street.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll find out about the Height’s mommy grapevine soon enough. I mean, if you plan on sticking around—”
“I am, for sure. I’m not going anywhere.” The lines on Harry’s face once again realign into a steely implacability. “This is our home. My kids love it here. We’ll…we’ll work through it somehow.”
“Sure you will,” I murmur reassuringly. “There’s no place like the Heights for raising kids. That’s why we’re all here. Hey listen, really, I didn’t mean to scare you off. You know, about the way we mommies talk and all. It was just such a shock to everyone. The two of you always seemed so—so happy.”
“Yeah. Happy. I thought we were, too.” With this, his eyes get moist again. This time, though, he shrugs, then passes a broad palm over them. I assume that he’s decided that the Handi Wipes give off the wrong impression. “You were right when you said that every minute you spend with your kids is important. And I haven’t been around for most of it.”
Well, of course you weren’t, I want to say. You were out making a living! Bringing home the bacon, playing this millennium’s version of caveman . . .
And boy oh boy, your stucco palace has all the bells and whistles to prove it.
Too bad you found another Neanderthal in there, with your wife.
But I keep my mouth shut. Because you don’t hit a man when he’s down.
Instead, I let him rhapsodize about how things will be from now on, now that he is home to nurture, protect, and defend. He has already asked his partners at his firm to cut him some slack, he tells me stoically. He'll go into the office just two days a week, and only during the hours that the kids are in school. His partners don’t like the idea, but hey, they need him too badly, so they'll work around it. Besides he can still juggle things out of his home office, after he takes the kids to school, right? At thirteen, Jake is too old for a nanny—not that Harry would ever consider that in the first place, oh no, no way in hell! That’s all DeeDee needs to hear to make her case for full custody. He and the kids will muddle through together, everyone pitching in to help out. He’ll position it to them as a family adventure . . .
As for the grocery shopping, or getting Jake to basketball practice, or Temple to her ballet and gym and acting classes, or nursing them when they have fevers, or covering them when their school is out for staff development days—not to mention showing up for parent-teacher conferences—how bad can it be? All it takes is a little planning, some adept scheduling on his Blackberry. Heck, it’ll be a cakewalk compared to flying all over the country in order to take meetings and meals with CEOs and CFOs at the Palm in DC, or the River Café in New York, or the Grillroom in Chicago—
You poor, pathetic misinformed man.
DeeDee certainly fooled you in more ways than one.
I am so tempted to level with him about his new life, to blurt out the truth:
That suburbia is a jungle, filled with lots of vicious creatures.
Gain a few pounds, and the hyenas start giggling behind your back. Don’t volunteer for that field trip, and the silence of those usually sweet-as-lambs mommies who must pick up your slack will be deafening. Forget that it’s your turn to bring the after-game healthy snacks for the little league team, and you might as well not show up because the other mothers’ tongue-lashing will shred you into human tartar.
And you, Harry Wilder, are nothing but fresh meat. So please, please watch your back.
But what is his alternative? To wallow in fear of the platoon of Pilates-pumped Amazons who commandeer the streets of Paradise Heights in their Lexus LXs or their Benz GLKs, and pray that he doesn’t say or do something so DI (domestically incorrect) that his kids will be ostracized until they leave home for college?
Or, perhaps it would be better to seek out the other househusbands in the neighborhood.
I wince at this thought. There are just two of them: Calvin Bullworth, a software geek who is such a hermit that he's rumored to be a cyberterrorist under house arrest. His wife, Bev Bullworth, is the Heights’ number one realtor. (Her motto: “No Bull, Just Better Service!”) Unfortunately, this means that she is always in other peoples’ houses with strangers, and rarely home with Cal and their two children: Sabrina, who at twelve and a half is already a study in disaffected Goth; and Duke, her ten-year-old brother, who, unfortunately, has the sallow demeanor and social skills of his father. The poor kid gets crammed into a lot of school lockers.
And then there is Pete Shriver, the Heights’ househusband extraordinaire: a trust fund baby—yes, he’s heir to the Shriver Tectonics fortune—he has immersed himself in all things Paradise Heights. As the coach in the Paradise Heights Middle School basketball team, he has led the Red Devils to three undefeated seasons straight. At the annual Heights July Fourth Blazin’ Barbecue Cook-Off, his melt-in-your-mouth brisket, prepared on a fifty-four-inch professional Lynx grill, brings home the blue ribbon every time. Under his tutelage, the Paradise Heights communal vegetable garden is not only shorn of errant weeds, but any members who don’t work their gardens prodigiously. And as the editor of the Boulevard Bugle, his editorial series on the aesthetic advantages of authentic antique gas lamps versus newer aluminum faux versions inspired the community drive that ante’d up the four thousand dollars needed to cover their additional cost . . .
Oh sure, Pete is a dynamo . . .
Although he’s rumored to be somewhat less energetic in the bedroom, which is perhaps why his wife, Masha—a Russian mail order bride—is the neighborhood slut. And to everyone’s dismay, their thirteen-year-old daughter, Nastassia, is rumored to be following in her footsteps.
I don’t have the heart to break the news to Harry about his new band of brothers. Not that he’d believe me anyway, even if I did set him straight. No, it’s best that I ease him into this new world order.
As we round up the dogs and the kids and say our goodbyes, I suggest that we make a play date for Olivia and Temple for the middle of next week. Harry, grateful, promptly says yeah sure, then flips through the agenda on his Blackberry and thumbs that in, along with my cell phone number.
He is now officially a househusband.
His next task: File for divorce.
“I’ll never understand why this all happened in the first place,” he murmurs with a shake of his head. “I thought I gave her the life she always wanted. I guess I was wrong.”
(c) 2010 Josie Brown. Published in June 2010 by Simon & Schuster/Downtown Press. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Here's what the reviewers are saying about
SECRET LIVES OF HUSBANDS AND WIVES
"Hollywood's got nothing on the cast of characters living in the bedroom community of Paradise Heights, who have the secrets, sex, money and scandal of an OK! Magazine cover story. Josie Brown is a skilled observer whose clever dialogue and feisty style make for truly entertaining reading."
—Jackie Collins, bestselling author of Hollywood Wives and Poor Little Bitch Girl
"I loved it! Josie Brown captures the highs and lows of love, lust and marriage with heartwrenching pathos. I'm recommending it to all my friends as the perfect beach read!"
—Lisa Rinna, actress, and author of the novel, Starlit, and the personal growth book, Rinnavation
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