Excerpt: The Secrets She Keeps
She isn’t one bit sorry. Not right now. Not when she closes the door of that car and the window is down and there are crickets and millions of stars and miles and miles of open road. For once, she is not the one making the careful, thoughtout decisions that make her the practical sister, because there is no question: This is a mistake. This is a doomed mission of the heart, and Veronica May Fontaine says no life worth living is absent a few of those. Of course, Veronica May Fontaine had tipped back more than one Moscow mule before she said it, and Nash’s mother had only rolled her eyes. By that time, Alice had heard it all.
But this night, no theory of love matters. No consequences do. There is a thin yellow curve of moon in that big, big desert sky. The night air smells like dry grass and horse manure and summer. Nash is flying down that dirt road with her true love beside her, and she is filled with all the complicated themes of two people bound together by circumstances of fate—rescue and renewal, joy and fear, connection and inevitable loss.
She has made a promise. A vow. She may be only eighteen years old—Jack Waters called her Peanut before he stopped seeing her as a child—but you don’t grow up on a divorce ranch and not learn to take a vow seriously.
Honestly, though? It may seem terrible to say—horrible, a betrayal—but even the vow, the terrible night of it, the metallic smell of blood and the sound of thunder that wasn’t thunder but horse hooves, hundreds of them, has retreated in the face of this. This soaring. This rise in her whole body now, as they pick up speed and the ranch falls away behind them and there is only the sweet catastrophe of what’s to come.
Thomas washed his wallet by accident, and that’s what changed my life. He’d left it in his pants. My mother always told Shaye and me never to do a man’s laundry, but as I watched him spread out soggy receipts and dollar bills on the foot of our bed, I wished I’d never listened. He looked defeated. He was bent over that small, wrecked pile, and it seemed as if all the annoyances of living had suddenly caught up to him—the cracks in the cement and missed planes and calls to the cable company. Two minutes later, our marriage as we knew it would be hanging in some awful balance, but right then I felt bad for him. I thought maybe he’d lived a life of quiet desperation, only I hadn’t known it. My mother—she ended up alone, anyway. She’d say that’s how she wanted it, but we were two different people.
It was Saturday morning, and I was still in my robe. I sat crosslegged on the bed. Thomas wore that T-shirt with the sailboat on the back and his favorite old cargo shorts. I always thought he looked cute in those. Thomas was still a very goodlooking man, no doubt about that. He was fit and strong, and that dark hair, well, even now it got to me, these many years later, the way it had that slightly mussed mind of its own.
“Did it make it?” I asked him. The wallet looked battered and soaked but also like it just had the ride of its life. Thomas set it up at an angle on the dresser. It was not any usual old day for that wallet. No flat, dull outing in a back pocket for that adventurous leather accessory.
“I hope so,” Thomas said. “It better have.”
He seemed to mean it. I was surprised he cared so much about it. It might have been a Christmas gift years ago, and God knew he could do with a new one. He never bought himself the things he needed. He still had coats from his college days, and he could go miles with the sole of a shoe flapping. He was smug about all the things he could do without. It could drive you insane.
“I think it’s okay.” He exhaled his relief, unfurled a photo from the small stack of wet paper in his hand. There you had it—we’d been talking about two different things, and to that I can only say, No comment.
He set the small square of paper on the comforter to dry. It was an awful picture of the four of us from the time of shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans—I’d forgotten how high. My hair was permed for the first and last time, and if you saw it, you’d know why. I did it at home from a box, and the curls were as tight as an Airedale’s. Thomas’s own hair was long in front, and he was wearing an Alpine sweater that worked so hard at being cheery, your heart went out to it. Amy and Melissa wore the dresses Thomas’s mother had bought them just before cancerscare number one. I made them wear the scratchy lace because we thought she was dying, but naturally she wasn’t. Those kinds of people go on forever. I think we had the picture taken for free in the back corner of a J. C. Penney or somewhere like that; at least, we were in front of a cloudy blue background. It was the sort of photo they show on crime programs after someone’s been murdered.
“Look at us,” I said. Who knew if J. C. Penney even had photo studios anymore.
“I thought it was done for,” he said, before moving on, peeling away a sodden ticket stub and a voter-registration card. He held up the damp, noble face of Andrew Jackson, torn in half by the spin cycle. “Great. Terrific.”
“A little tape will fix that right up,” I said.
“What time is it?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He leaned over to look at the clock on the bedside table. “Shit. I’m already late.”
He exhaled the frustration of the morning. I felt a curl of guilt for my wifely shortcomings. Thomas was the sort of husband who brought you a cup of coffee and made sure the snow tires had been put on, though maybe, too, you could always feel a sigh in there somewhere. Folding his socks wouldn’t have been such a big deal, though he probably would have lost a lot more wallets had I been in charge of the washing.
“How about if I go get her?” Our daughter Amy was at the last Global Citizens meeting before her post-graduation trip to Costa Rica. The group was leaving in the morning. I should also mention what a good father Thomas was. He was even one of the parents who helped at the fundraising car wash. He’d done it for Melissa, too, a few years before. I wanted to be with Amy every chance I could get right then, but I can’t truthfully say I minded missing out on the jumping and screaming and signwaving of the girls on the street corner. T-shirts with glitter could get the better of me. Thomas woke up early, though. He said, Rise and shine, Sunshines! and made the rounds of the house, rousing us with the sock of a pillow. He put a baseball cap on over his tousled morning hair and even got donuts for the kids on the way.
“I’m going! I’m going right now.”
“It’s no big deal. She can wait,” I said.
He had that look, the one he often had when he came home from work and it was an endless day of weighing what was best for whom, studying zoning laws and park space and the height of busstop shelters, making decisions when there were no real right answers. He’d had that look quite a lot lately. Clearly there was a greater thing on his mind. A greater thing that made all other things irritating intrusions.
And that’s when it happened. He palmed a sodden business card and crushed it into a ball. This alone did not make me understand that life as I knew it was changing before my very eyes. It was what he did just after that—the way he glanced up to see if he’d been caught. All it takes to unravel or undo is one lost stitch, one tiny tear, and that’s what that glance was.
You know way too much about each other when you’re married; that’s one of the problems. Another is that you know way too little. Still, I’d have recognized that look on anyone. On Shaye when we were kids, or on my own children, or a stranger, for that matter. Even Hugo. He’d had that same look whenever he tried to run off with someone’s Kleenex.
Our eyes met. Thomas dropped his away.
“Mack?” I said. It was my love name for him. I felt a little sick inside.
“What is that?”
“In your hand.”
He shook his head, as if I’d been the one to do something disappointing. “Jesus, Callie,” he said. A Je-sus of disgust, drawn out to two syllables to underscore how irrational I could be.
More than anything, more than anything, I wanted my life to stay as it was. I loved my life. I loved Thomas and our daughters. I loved my house. I loved that house so much. Sometimes, you’d put up with almost anything if it meant not losing that brick pathway you’d planted with perennials. It could get confusing. Whether you really did want things to stay as they were, or whether you just didn’t want things to change.
Thomas grabbed his license and a credit card and a few still-wet bills and he stormed out of our bedroom. The storming felt like something you’d see on TV. The boat on his back, Kailua Yacht Club, from the last trip we took as a family before the kids got too old for that kind of thing, sailed down the hall in a sitcom huff.
I didn’t follow. I didn’t ask him questions or demand answers. Not right then, anyway. I kept my suspicions to myself, as if I had a plan. That’s the thing about change. Sometimes you think it’s something that happens to you, when actually you’re right there, acting as its naïve yet diligent assistant.
Late Sunday afternoon, we dropped Amy off at the airport. I wasn’t used to seeing her hair so short. She looked even lovelier, changed already, with her eyes shining and that enormous backpack on the floor next to her. Don’t worry, Mom, she’d said. I’ll be fine. I’ll be great! The group had all just graduated from high school, but the girls still snuck selfconscious glances into reflective surfaces, and the boys still punched the arms of their friends. We’d known a lot of these kids since kindergarten, and they mostly seemed their same selves, only larger. I remember when Sam lost his lunchbox and cried so hard he threw up, and here he was, with those same vulnerable shoulders. Amy looked back at us and gave a last wave, and for a moment it was like my heart had walked off and I was left with a vacant body. For a second, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was at a total loss. Thomas and I stood there together like we were college freshmen just dropped off by their parents and assigned to room together.
We picked up some Thai food and watched a movie Thomas ordered. I had moments where I forgot all about that guilty look he gave me, until the ugly memory butted back in. My head spun, and then the hit of denial kicked in, as helpful and soothing as any sedative. I love denial; I admit it. It’s the best drug—plentiful, and free, besides. Thomas, scooping pad kee mao out of a Styrofoam container, looked like old Thomas.
That night, after we turned out the light, the red digital numbers of the bedside clock stared me down. I tried to ignore it, but of all household objects, bedside clocks are the most insistent, more than beeping refrigerators and door alarms, more than kitchen timers and even blaring radios. It’s the strong silent types that get you.
“Are you awake?”
“If you’re talking, you’re awake.”
“I wasn’t talking.”
“I don’t want you to get mad, but I’ve got to ask you something.”
“Cal, what, it’s almost midnight.”
One of the digital numbers blinked, six to seven, and then stared. Okay, all right! I set my hand on the hill of Thomas’s hip. “Yesterday, when you washed your wallet . . . You crumpled something up.”
“I don’t remember.” His voice was clear now. It had lost the muffled quality of near sleep.
“I think you do.”
He sat up then. Actually, he didn’t just sit up; he rose with a pissed-off tussle of blankets, yanked the quilt to cover him. I could see the outline of his face turned to me in the dark, and I knew by the set of his jaw how upset he was. “Jesus, Cal. Really? Why are you going on about that again? Do you think I’m having some affair? It was a piece of paper.”
Should I have stopped there? Would that have ended it? Well, I couldn’t, because if it were nothing, I’d still be seeing the motionless curve of his body, the hump of him, under the covers. He would not have sat up like this, fuming now. He’d have stayed close to sleep, offering the tired explanation that would finally settle the matter.
“What kind of piece of paper?”
“A business card.”
“Do you think this is in any way reasonable? You wake me up at midnight to interrogate me about a stupid card from some . . . I don’t know what his name was, Jarret? Jarret Smith? Some guy who came by the office offering financial services. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
He punched his pillow, made his feelings clear through fist and down feathers, and then dropped his head again. I knew he was awake, though. I had that heightened awareness that speaks of possible danger, the feeling you get after there’s been a wrong sound in the house and you wait, just as I was doing then, to see if you might hear it again. After a while, there was the familiar rhythm of his breathing. He’d fallen asleep. But I lay awake for a long time, the glowing red numbers of that clock sending their steadfast message, telling me something I was sure I already knew.