I didn’t understand why she was talking to my child. I’d asked to see the apartment. I’d made an appointment to see the apartment, and instead of taking me to see the apartment at once, this woman, this property manager — this assistant property manager, to be precise — had spent the better part of five minutes trying to ingratiate herself with my child. At first I thought it was sweet, the way it was sweet when the bank teller gave my daughter a lollipop or the woman at the bakery told her she had pretty eyes. But after five minutes I began to find Linda D’Angelo’s attention to my child less sweet than rude. I looked at my watch. She saw me look at my watch and still turned back to my daughter, asking the name of her stuffed animal in a tone so bubbly even the child found it suspicious and hesitated to answer.
The child’s mother — who was still my wife at the time and had graciously agreed to tag along to look at the apartment and offer an opinion — intervened. “Go on, sweetie,” she said. “Answer the nice lady.” Our daughter answered, Linda gushed, and my jaw tightened. My initial inclination was to assume the problem was less Linda’s enthusiasm for stuffed cats than my own disagreeable nature. At forty-eight, mid-divorce, I was well aware of my disagreeable nature. But when I glanced at my wife to get a read on her sense of the situation, she smirked discreetly and rolled her eyes, and I felt justified — not in my indignance (my indignance was never justified, as far as my wife was concerned) but in my impatience, at least. It was a rare moment of solidarity between us, especially since the night six or seven weeks earlier when, on a hunch, my wife had gone through my phone and discovered evidence of the affair I’d had with an old girlfriend that summer — discovered not only that I’d fucked this woman but, worse, that I’d loved her, or believed that I’d loved her, and that, three months after the affair had ended, I was still texting her, trying to convince her to see me again. My wife had been devastated. She’d cried and said, “I’m so stupid,” and told me how she felt like even the walls of our house hated her, and after a few days of alternating between anger and self-blame, she’d asked for a divorce. So it was nice now to look to her for some kind of validation and get it, even if it was just to make sure that Linda was, in fact, annoying. It meant that I wasn’t insane, and also that we were together on something, and I wanted us to be together, not just for the child but for me, because I had so profoundly wronged my wife, and I couldn’t stand the guilt and felt completely helpless and alone without her. I hadn’t so much as bought a shirt without her input in more than a decade, and, with the exception of the affair, I hadn’t cultivated any human relationships on my own. I’d let all my friendships drop over the years, such that I had no one left to talk to except my seven-year-old daughter, and what could I say to her? Gee, honey, I’m really having trouble with this divorce thing. No. I needed my wife. The need was urgent and visceral, like hunger. I hadn’t understood it until then, but when I looked at her in the rental office and she rolled her eyes at Linda, I realized that what I had been feeling for the past month and a half had not been guilt or regret or longing so much as desperation. I was desperate to feel connected to my wife again, even if it meant I had to listen to Linda D’Angelo, who now wanted to know my daughter’s favorite subject in school.
Initially, when my wife and I had decided to divorce, I’d told the ex-girlfriend that I would be getting a place of my own. I mean, my desire to make peace with my wife had not caused me to give up any hope of getting back together with my mistress — at least, not at first. I hadn’t expected her to be thrilled that my wife had found out about the affair, but I had expected her to be happy that we would finally be able to see each other openly and honestly, the way she’d said she wanted all those afternoons we’d spent in bed together in the half-light, when she’d told me over and over that she loved me with throaty whispers in my ear. I’d been such a buffoon. The affair had been a midlife-crisis cliché, but in my defense, she’d been the first woman in years to make me feel desirable again, and since she was also an ex-girlfriend, it was easy to tell myself that we were supposed to be together, that we were soul mates who’d been separated by circumstance or some shit. I’d been heartbroken — and stupidly astonished — when, upon hearing of my impending divorce, my mistress’s response had been to cut me out of her life altogether. “It’s just too awkward,” she’d said. “I can’t.”
And, just like that, I had lost them both: my wife and my mistress. I told myself I deserved it. Everybody gets what they deserve, my father had always said. He’d also said that men who left their wives were bums. “Fucking bums,” to be exact. According to my father’s ghost, I was a fucking bum and deserved to lose everything.
But my daughter was another story. My daughter did not deserve to lose her father. It was essential that she not lose her father. If I had failed my wife, I could not fail my daughter. That was why the stakes for the apartment were so high. I needed her to love the place, because I’d shown her another place the day before, and she’d fallen in love with that place, but the deal had fallen through. The other apartment — the one she loved — had a door between the guest bathroom and my daughter’s would-be bedroom, so it would have felt like she had her own master bath. That was the selling point for her, and I’d been thrilled that such a minor detail had given her so much joy. She’d just learned that her parents were getting divorced, and already she’d found something to be happy about. I was desperate to give her anything she wanted, anything that would make the divorce feel more positive, but instead of filling out the application immediately, I’d waited until I’d put her to bed that night, then watched a movie for a while and done a few things around the house, and by the time I’d gotten around to logging in to the property website sometime after midnight, the apartment was gone. So I was desperate, and as much as I disliked Linda, I had to hope that my daughter would love her, and love the apartment, too. It was bigger, with three bedrooms and a fireplace and a balcony view of the lake, but I was afraid none of that would matter to a seven-year-old girl in quite the same way her own bathroom would, and I would end up having to tell her that I’d been too late with the application; that the apartment she loved, like our family home, was now gone.
My wife and I had taken our daughter to see that place together, too, immediately after telling her about the divorce. She’d handled the news well. Not at first, of course. At first her face had broken like a Greek tragedy mask, and I was struck by how much she looked like her mother when I’d broken her heart: the child’s eyes slanting down and soundlessly filling with tears, her mouth wide open but also silent, crying so hard that the sound of her sobs could not escape — until, at last, she covered her face with a blanket and wailed like I had never heard her wail before. She wailed as though the world had fallen apart, because for her it had. When I removed the blanket, her tears were the size of fingernails, and I thought for sure I had destroyed her. During the affair I’d thought it was only her mother I was betraying. As I’d driven to and from my mistress’s house, as my mistress had straddled me and smiled down at me, telling me how good I felt, I’d thought of my wife and how I was betraying her, and even then I’d done my best to disregard that thought, to put it quickly from my mind, because I was in love with my mistress (or so I believed), and I was feeling trapped with my wife because of the child. So, actually, there was no real betrayal at all in deceiving my wife, in sneaking out of a trap. And it was out of love for the child and loyalty to the child that I always returned to the trap. But I never thought of the child while I was with my lover. I only thought of my wife. Sometimes my lover would move on top of me, move faster and then slower, teasing me and teasing herself until at last she rolled onto her back and pulled me on top and whispered hoarsely in my ear, I love you, whispered, Fuck me, and as our bodies slid together, slick and selfish and covered with sweat, I held back, waiting for her to make that sound that told me I’d finished her off before I would let myself come — not because I was a considerate lover but because, after eleven years of marriage, it was a rush to get another woman off — and the thought of my wife would come crashing in. And though half the time (I’m ashamed to say) I would actually relish the thought — smile into my lover’s hair, practically congratulating myself for getting away with it, like a teenager who’d snuck a gulp of Daddy’s liquor — there were times when the image of her face hit me like a hypodermic needle between the eyes, and the remorse was so overwhelming that it didn’t matter how good my body felt. It didn’t matter that I was inside this woman — this beautiful, leggy, blue-eyed woman, the other woman, the ex-girlfriend I’d pined for — because even as I shuddered and came, as my spine went cold and my foot froze like a block of ice, I felt like a piece of shit. I saw my wife’s face in my mind and thought, I have betrayed you, and I had to get out of bed and splash cold water on my face, because I was sure I would never be OK again. But whatever I may have thought when I was in bed with my lover, it was clear to me now that I had lied to myself; that, more than I had betrayed anyone else, I had betrayed my child, because my daughter’s life would never be the same. The trajectory of her life had changed forever, and it was my fault. I had destroyed her home, and only time would tell what else, all because I’d wanted to fuck somebody other than her mother for a change; because I’d wanted to play nostalgic games with an ex-girlfriend; because I’d wanted to play midlife crisis; because I’d wanted to feel desired.
Linda was still talking. My head was spinning, and Linda was still talking to the child about puppies. My daughter didn’t even like puppies. She told the woman, “I like cats.” And rather than smiling and nodding and moving on with her life, this woman wasted two more minutes of all our lives attempting, with spectacular imbecility, to persuade a seven-year-old that she was somehow mistaken in her choice of favorite pets, that dogs in general made better pets than cats, because they could fetch and were always happy to see you and so on. I was astonished, not only because I found it obnoxious that she was trying to argue this point with my child, but because I could not believe that a grown woman, an ostensibly professional woman, thought the conversation was worth having. What was the point? I recognized that part of her job was to show a certain level of amicability, but her actual job was to show me the fucking apartment. And just when I thought I could no longer endure it — when I thought she had left me no choice and I had to say something, I had to be rude — Linda said, “German shepherds are nice,” and my daughter’s mouth fell open in amazement.
“My dad likes German shepherds!” she said, and she took my hand and leaned against my side, and Linda smiled like an aunt. She smiled at my daughter, and then, after a cautious, furtive glance at my wife, she smiled at me in a way I had not expected and would not have expected in a thousand years — not only because of the rock the size of Gibraltar on her finger, but because she’d spent the preceding ten minutes talking about puppies and rainbows and unicorns with my daughter, and it seemed wildly incongruous for her to be smiling at me now in this other way. But smiling she was, and at my age I’d have been a fool not to recognize what kind of smile it was. It made me feel important and attractive, even if I had, up until that moment, been thinking of her as tedious and dimwitted. It also made me think flirting with her was going to be the best way to see the apartment. So I smiled back, a little longer than I was supposed to — or maybe exactly as long as I was supposed to, depending on how you look at it. I smiled until it seemed like that was all we were doing: standing there smiling at each other, as though everything else was an afterthought. Then I said, “We should go see the apartment,” as if I were saying, We should go get a cup of coffee, and for a second it was like Linda got confused. She looked down, patted her pockets. “The keys,” she said.
I asked if they were in her desk, and she said, “Yes, the desk. Hold on.” And she got the keys and took us to the apartment. We followed her there, Linda and my daughter up ahead, and my wife and I hanging back so we could talk quietly without being heard. My wife was annoyed. “Linda?” she asked. “Really?” I looked at the lake. It was shiny and green. I looked at the pines lining the lake. I looked at the tiny white clouds — “like polka dots,” our daughter had said on the car ride over. “Mom,” she’d said. “Dad. The clouds are like polka dots.” And we’d smiled at each other, my wife and I, moved by our daughter’s imagination, and my wife had said, “That’s a really beautiful thing to say, sweetheart,” and the child had made us promise again that we wouldn’t marry other people. And it was so stupid, I’d thought, so totally stupid that we were getting divorced to begin with, that an affair with an ex-girlfriend had destroyed us, that an affair with a woman I now had contempt for was still such a big deal. I’d grown to have contempt for my mistress because she hadn’t meant any of the things she’d said to me; because I wasn’t the long-lost love of her life. I’d been an ego boost for her after her own divorce. That was all. And it didn’t matter to her how much damage it had done to me or my family. She was less a woman than a monitor lizard, I thought. She’d preyed on me. And what did it matter? Why was it so important? Why couldn’t we — my wife and I — just let it go?
The answer was simple, of course. We’d been falling apart for years. We’d barely been speaking to each other even before I’d had the affair. I was terrible to live with. I’d get angry at the stupidest things. I’d get angry if I thought the dishwasher hadn’t been loaded properly. I’d slam cabinets and drawers. I’d swear under my breath. And she was always afraid of making me mad. She shrank into herself. And I was afraid to talk to her, because it seemed like everything I said hurt her feelings. I couldn’t toss a throw pillow off the couch to sit down without making her think I was mad at her. Even when I wasn’t mad, she thought I was mad. Everything was an accusation. Everything was a criticism. If I remarked that the bathroom needed to be cleaned, she thought I meant that she should have cleaned it weeks ago, that she was a terrible housekeeper, a terrible wife, and a terrible mother because she hadn’t cleaned the bathroom, and the child had a cold, and in my wife’s mind the child had a cold because my wife hadn’t cleaned the bathroom. It was crazy. I couldn’t even blame myself for it anymore. I had blamed myself for a long time before I’d realized that it had nothing to do with me, that she was accusing herself.
But that didn’t give me an excuse to go making eyes at Linda. And in front of my wife, for God’s sake. My wife, who was still recovering from the fact that I’d had an affair. What had I been thinking? Certainly not that I liked Linda. I wanted to tell my wife I hadn’t made eyes at her because I’d liked her. I’d done it because I’d thought if I played along, the conversation would be over sooner. But that sounded all wrong, even in my head, and instead, when my wife said, “Linda? Really?” I found myself stammering, denying it. “What?” I asked. “No.” Like my wife was being crazy. Why do men do that: act like women are crazy when they see us most clearly?
My wife shook her head and sighed. “Look at the clouds,” she said.
“Like polka dots,” I said, and then we were climbing the stairs to the apartment.
“I’m going to show you 801,” Linda said, “but you’ll be moving into 802. They’re basically the same, just pointed in different directions, if you know what I mean.” She fumbled with the keys a little, and I watched her ass. I didn’t mean to, didn’t even realize I was doing it at first. I just did it and smiled and said, “I know what you mean,” then looked at my wife and realized that not only had I been looking at Linda’s ass, but my wife had seen me doing it and lost her sense of humor in the process. She had her hair pulled back tight, the way it had been at the train station in Boston not long after I’d proposed to her. She’d said yes, but later at the station it had been clear that something was wrong, and when I’d been about to get on the train to go back to Mississippi, she’d had her hair pulled back tight like that, her forehead tight, even her eyes tight, and then she’d started crying right there on the platform, telling me she was sorry, but she couldn’t say yes. She needed time to think, to pray. It wasn’t a decision she could make on the spot. She loved me, but. Her hair was pulled back tight that day, and we shared a tearful goodbye on the platform like characters in a Russian novel, even though it was not winter — it was summer and hot, and the sun was shining like you couldn’t get away from it. And she went back to Utah, and I went back to Mississippi, where we’d met, and a couple of weeks later we were talking on the phone every day, trying to figure out if we could navigate the interfaith thing (she was Mormon; I was not), and then one day I called her, and she was in a bridal shop trying on wedding dresses. I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe she’d just assumed the offer was still on the table. But I’d married her, in spite of the scene at the train station. And now I wondered if that had been a good idea. Because all I’d said to Linda was that I understood. She’d said the apartments faced opposite directions, and I’d said, “I know what you mean.” I hadn’t meant anything even vaguely suggestive by it, and I certainly had no intention of fucking her, and it hadn’t really been my fault if her ass happened to be at eye level while I was standing on the stairs waiting for her to open the apartment door. I had only looked at what was in front of me. I had only smiled. Was my wife now going to conflate every woman I spoke to with the other woman, the one I’d betrayed her with? Was she that paranoid and jealous, that she would interpret any exchange I had with any woman as implicitly sexual? Did she seriously think I wanted to fuck Linda? Would I have fucked Linda? Oh, God, I thought. I might. Given half the chance, I might fuck Linda, even if I don’t want to listen to her talk. I was every bit the monitor lizard my mistress had been, behaving as though my wife were paranoid for suspecting that I was doing exactly what I was doing: flirting with this other woman right in front of her face, and not just to speed things along, to get into the apartment sooner, but to see if maybe there was some slim chance of getting into bed with her. I hated myself in that moment. Because for years I had imagined my wife was judging me, looking at me with accusing eyes, being unjustly severe when, in fact, any time she’d suspected me of having the wrong attitude about something — another woman, her church, my job, Thanksgiving dinner, et cetera — her suspicions had been more or less correct. And still I had maintained my innocence, as if to ask, How could you? How could you think that I don’t want to spend time with your sisters?
She had no reason to believe that my motives with Linda were pure. She had no reason to believe I wasn’t planning to return to the rental office the next day to make arrangements to see Linda at my earliest possible convenience. My wife had no reason to believe I would not invite Linda first for coffee, then for a drink, then to the local pay-by-the-hour motel. And she had no reason to believe that Linda wasn’t the kind of person who would take me up on that offer. After the affair, it seemed to my wife that every woman was interested in me, every woman was flirting with me, that any number of women would have happily gone to bed with me. And though I knew that such suspicions were ludicrous, my wife didn’t.
One of her church friends had come over to help her sort through some boxes a few days earlier — and not just any church friend, but a particularly moralistic and judgmental church friend; a friend she’d told about the affair, and who had told my wife that I would never change (Men like that never change, she’d said) — and when this woman, whom I’d always found attractive, had been over at the house to help my wife clean out her closet, I’d poked my head into the bedroom and said hello and said that it was nice to see her, and she’d smiled back, and after she’d left, it was an hour and a half before my wife would speak to me again. And when she finally spoke, she’d accused me of making eyes at her friend and referred to her friend as a “hypocritical hussy” for making eyes back. So who knew what she thought about Linda? I had no idea what she was thinking about Linda — about anything, for that matter. I considered asking her, What are you thinking? Please tell me what you’re thinking. I saw those tight, dark little eyes looking at me after I’d looked at Linda’s ass, and I wanted to take her hand (my wife’s hand, that is) and walk her back down the stairs to the sidewalk so I could ask her in private what she was thinking, but just then Linda opened the door, and the child rushed in, and we couldn’t walk away, so I didn’t say anything. I tried to take my wife’s hand, but she snapped it away and walked into the apartment behind Linda. I went in last. And inside the apartment I took her hand again, only this time I waited until Linda was looking, and I knew my wife knew Linda was looking. Linda was going on and on about the multitudinous splendors of the place: The granite countertops! The brand-new refrigerator! The gorgeous view of the lake! Then and only then did I reach for my wife’s hand, because I thought she wouldn’t take it away again. It would have caused a scene. I thought I would hold her hand for a few minutes, and things would chill out, and she’d let herself relax, but instead she immediately yanked her hand away again. In spite of everything, she not only recoiled, she recoiled without concealing it, like she wanted Linda to know she was done with me. Linda looked away as though she’d walked in on us having sex, which is to say that she was simultaneously embarrassed and amused. I hated my wife just then. I hated her as much as I’d ever hated her, as much as I’d ever hated anybody. Because who was she? Not the queen of Bhutan, by any means. I wouldn’t have cheated on her if she’d been the queen of Bhutan. I had been more than happy to cheat on my wife all summer long, so she obviously wasn’t a member of any royal family, and I was thoroughly disgusted with her for pulling away from me in front of Linda when I had been making an effort to be kind in spite of the fact that she had her hair pulled back the way she’d worn it at the train station in Boston that day, the day she’d said no — or not yes — the day I’d considered the possibility that I should not have felt rejection but relief. I could remember thinking, I can’t spend the rest of my life with this woman.
And now, standing in apartment 801, I remembered the spoons covered with sour cream that she left on the kitchen counter and the Q-tips covered with earwax on the edge of the wastebasket in the master bathroom and the way she sometimes smelled sour at night and snored, until she got the fucking CPAP machine, and how I hated the CPAP machine and the hospital noise it made in the bedroom all night almost as much as I’d hated the snoring, and the way she’d shouted at me, a few nights before she’d found out about the affair, because I was grading papers in bed and she wanted me to leave the room even though she was awake anyway and I was almost done. “I’m almost done,” I’d told her. And she’d shouted, “Get out of my room!” But it was my room, too, and our daughter was right across the hall, and I’d just put her to bed and left her door cracked so she wouldn’t be scared of the dark, and my wife was shouting, and the child could obviously hear it and would obviously be even more frightened by her parents shouting at each other than she would have been of the dark, so I’d whispered back to my wife in a low, threatening growl that it was my room, too, and I was the one paying the mortgage, and that meant it was mostly my fucking house, for that matter, and if she didn’t like it, she could get the fuck out. Remembering all that in the living room of that stupid apartment with its stupid new refrigerator and its stupid lake view, I hated her and was glad to be rid of her, and I thought maybe I would fuck Linda D’Angelo, assistant property manager of the Cedar Village Apartments, because though I didn’t like her either, she at least had the virtue of not being my wife, and I would have been very happy for my wife to know that, far from being broken up about losing her, I was already happily fucking someone else — not even the old mistress, but someone new.
And then my daughter came back from the deeper reaches of the apartment with her shoulders slumped and said, simply, “No.” She’d disappeared down the hall to investigate the bedrooms, because of course she was looking for a bedroom with a door straight to the bathroom, because that was what she’d loved about the apartment the day before, the one I’d promised to get and then failed to get, and of course there were no bedrooms like that in the apartment Linda had to offer. Not even the master bedroom had its own bath. And without looking at anything else, without contemplating the possible joys of having a fireplace or even standing on the balcony for a second to get a look at the lake — it really did have a great view of the lake — my daughter took my hand and said, “Let’s go.” And I knew that the Cedar Village Apartments would never do. If I did not want to disappoint my daughter, I would have to find a place with two master baths. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing her, but I stood in the middle of two women and a seven-year-old girl feeling as though I’d failed them all, even Linda, because I’d thought she was wasting my time when in fact I had been wasting hers. I’d been an ass, I thought. To my wife. To my daughter. Even to Linda. But I smiled for my daughter. I said, “OK.” And I followed her out, glancing over my shoulder at Linda to say sorry along the way.
While my wife and daughter followed Linda back to the rental office to retrieve my daughter’s stuffed cat, which she’d somehow managed to leave behind, I walked back to the car. Along the way I noticed that there were pinecones everywhere: in the grass, all over the sidewalk and the parking lot. And I remembered my wife’s twenty-seventh birthday, her first birthday as my wife, and how I’d taken her on a hot-air-balloon ride over the Boston suburbs, and she’d giggled and marveled at everything from the birds to the wind to the jet of flame that shot up intermittently to keep us aloft, and suddenly all the other times she’d giggled like that played in my head like film clips, scenes from before we were married, like when we were in graduate school in a tiny town in Mississippi, and we didn’t drink, and one of the only other things to do was go to the local Walmart, where they had this snowmobile arcade game with real seats that bounced when you went over snowdrifts, and she’d laughed and laughed; or like the time I let her drive my father’s Mercedes with the top down, and the wind blew her hair all over the place like spiderwebs. In the parking lot I remembered the sound of that laughter, and it seemed like the world would never be right without it, and I remembered the balloon ride and how we’d come so close to the trees at one point you could see the pinecones, and I’d wondered if we were supposed to be that close to the trees — I could not believe we were supposed to be that close to the trees — but I’d felt an abrupt urge to reach out and grab one of those pinecones, and, without thinking, I’d done it and been immediately astonished by the stickiness of the thing, like I’d stuck my hand in a plate of maple syrup, and the clouds looked like white paint smeared on a cerulean-blue sky, and I didn’t grab the pinecone firmly enough to actually rip it off the tree, but I had all this sticky stuff on my hand anyway, and I wanted it off me, and as I got in the car at Cedar Village Apartments, it seemed for a second like that was all of life: how I’d wanted the pinecone but not the sap, how I’d wanted it without even imagining the sap, and now all I had was the sap, and I can’t tell you how much I hadn’t wanted the sap. I never wanted any sort of stickiness on my hands. I ordered hot dogs without ketchup so there would never be any risk of getting it on my hands, because I could not bear to have my hands sticky — and on my wife’s twenty-seventh birthday, soaring above Massachusetts, my hands had been very sticky indeed, and there’d been no place to wipe them except my jeans. I remembered all of that and thought I’d have given anything to go back in time and hold on to that pinecone a little tighter, to pull it out of the tree and let my hand be sticky. Like if I could have held on to that, I could have held on to anything.
My wife and daughter got in the car.
“Did you see all the pinecones?” I asked.
“You hate them,” my wife said.