Sleepwalking in Daylightby Elizabeth Flock
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Featured on the March ’09 Indie Next List
Once defined by her career and independence, stay-at-home mom Samantha Friedman realizes her days have been reduced to errands, car pools and suburban gossip. It’s a role she always assumed she wanted to play, but now Sam has a nagging awareness that this might be all there is. She deals with a husband who shows up for dinner but is too preoccupied for conversation, and a daughter swathed in black clothing and Goth makeup who won’t talk at all.
Believing she’s an adopted mistake, seventeen-year-old Cammy has fallen into sex and drugs, and pours herself into a journal filled with poetry and pain. On parallel paths, mother and daughter indulge in desperate, furtive escapism—for Sam, a burgeoning relationship with her supposed soul mate, fueled by clandestine coffee dates and the desire to feel something; for Cammy, a secretive search for her birth mother punctuated by pills, pot and the need to feel absolutely nothing.
New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Flock’s novels have been hailed as “haunting” (Booklist) and “tremendously touching” (Kirkus Reviews). With Sleepwalking in Daylight, she perceptively reveals the inner workings of a modern marriage and the complicated mother-daughter relationship with unflinching honesty, delivering her most powerful, provocative story to date.
ISBN-13: 9780778325130 | Published by Mira Books | Publication Date: 2009-02-24
Hardcover | 368 pages | US $21.95
Buy the Book
“Elizabeth Flock offers us a haunting look at the challenges and responsibilities of raising a small family in suburban America. This is a cautionary tale about the perils of narcissism and living in denial. Once you pick it up, you can’t not read it to the very last page. Sleepwalking in Daylight will be remembered for a very long time.”
— New York Times bestselling author Dorothea Frank
“Sleepwalking in Daylight is a finely wrought heartbreaker of a novel. Flock writes in compulsively readable prose…shoot[ing] a quiver of arrows straight to the heart.” — The Denver Post
“Oprah would enjoy this book!” — blogcritics.org
“Flock writes well because she has talent.” — The Independent
“[This] novel is well-written, with painfully realistic dialogue, especially the mother-daughter exchanges. It’s a good read!”
– Star Tribune
“Flock has crafted a most believable cast of characters. Her dialogue reads like you’re eavesdropping at a coffeehouse; it’s that authentic.” – The News-Herald
“Not your average Cinderella story.” — The Boston Globe
“Have you ever opened your eyes and realized that you’ve been sleepwalking through your life? If so, this is the novel for you. Sleepwalking in Daylight is heartfelt and poignant, unique and memorable. Elizabeth Flock’s characters feel real, her dialogue is first-rate. The story is rich and resonates long after the last page has been turned. This novel isn’t about the perfection of life, but rather, how life’s imperfections, make it all the more precious.”
— John Shors, bestselling author of Beneath a Marble Sky
“[Sleepwalking in Daylight is] filled with perceptive, dead-on insights into both teenage angst and the common pitfalls of marriage in the middle years.”
“Great read! Terrific.” — Parenting Magazine
“A profound tale…” — Harriet Klausner
“Another strong characterization [from Elizabeth Flock, who] adroitly enters the psyche of a mother and daughter.”
We haven’t had sex in eleven months. Just shy of a year. More time than it takes to grow a human being. I know it was eleven months ago for two reasons: one, it was on our wedding anniversary and on wedding anniversaries sex is a given and two, the next night was the incident with the family room light. I was reading a book about a missionary family in Africa I ordered after Oprah plugged it. I keep track of what I read on my calendar and plus I remember wishing it weren’t our wedding anniversary because I was at the good part but instead I had to pretend I didn’t know Bob was simply going through the motions required of husbands celebrating their wedding anniversaries.
So there we were the following night, in the second floor room that is, after the kitchen, the nerve center of our house. Bob was at the computer in the corner searching eBay for tennis rackets even though it’d end up costing more for one on eBay when you factor in the shipping and handling.
“Why don’t you just go to Sportmart?” I’d asked earlier in the evening.
“I’m looking for the old wooden ones,” he said without looking up. “The old Wilsons.”
I shrugged and went back to my book. I became so engrossed I remember looking up and feeling shock that no, I wasn’t in a civil war in the Congo, I was actually in my tidy three-story house on Chicago’s North Side. I remember smiling and thinking I love it when that happens. When a book’s so good you forget who and where you are.
I’d heard Bob sighing and pushing back from the family desk littered with half-finished homework, field-trip permission slips and school reminders on brightly colored paper. He crossed the room and flicked off the light as he left and it took me calling “hey” for him to come back, switch it back on with an “oh, sorry, I forgot you were there.” The worst part was he wasn’t doing it to prove some point. He truly forgot I was in the room with him. Which is exactly the point. We haven’t had sex since.
I know it seems like a silly thing, the light incident. But everyone has that final straw, that moment of clarity when you can’t put your finger on it, you just know there’s been a shift, a ripple in the atmosphere. The little things have added up and finally you can’t take it anymore.We’ve been quietly drifting into our own worlds for a while, Bob and I. I’ve just been ignoring it. Up until now. And I can’t take it anymore.
Just last week I got buttermilk for the pancakes I decided to make for no real reason. A special treat. I felt like making an effort for once. I got the buttermilk because I know Bob likes it when the pancakes are richer. Swanky pancakes he used to say in a tone that thanked me for going the extra mile back when something like buttermilk was considered going the extra mile. Last week not only did he not notice we were having something other than cold cereal, but when I carefully slid a stack from the spatula onto a plate waved me off and he said, “None for me. There’s that construction on Irving Park so we’ve gotta get going. C’mon, guys.”
Our eight-year-old sons, Jamie and Andrew,were still chewing when they grabbed their shin guards and soccer cleats. Sometimes I wonder if they really are twins, they’re so different in looks and personality. Jamie moves slowly and deliberately like he’s thought out every step he takes. Before breakfast he lined up his guards and shoes neatly by the backdoor.He put out two bottles of water, just to the side.He remembers the second one because Andrew never does. Jamie has freckles across his nose. His skin is so milky white you can see blue veins through it. His delicate features I think will translate into a refined face later on.He is small for eight and many people assume he is younger than his brother. Andrew is solid and stocky with thick brownish-red hair and a Dennis the Menace cowlick.He is exactly what you think of when you think of an eightyear- old boy: messy, unkempt, fearless. If he falls down and cuts his lip he spits the blood out and keeps going. He’s got a short attention span but he was tested for ADHD and came up clean. I’ve had to tell Jamie not to pick up after his brother,which he does on the sly because he can’t bear to see his twin in trouble. In trouble Jamie looks wounded. Andrew just tips his head back to roll his eyes at the ceiling and sighs at the futility of parental warnings. Nothing gets through to Andrew;everything gets through to Jamie.
“You know which field it is, right?” I ask Bob.
“I know which field,” he says, annoyed but pausing for a sneeze of a second while he considers double checking.
“I’m just saying. It’s changed this season and you haven’t been yet. Boys, you know which way to go, right? Take a right from the parking lot and go over the hill, remember? Show Dad the way, will you?”
“Bye, Mom!” Andrew calls out.
“Tie your shoes, Andrew. Bob, get him to tie them up before he gets out of the car. He’ll trip.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, tie your shoes,” Bob says. “Let’s go guys.”
The soccer ball is wedged between his arm and ribs. He drops the keys and bends like a pregnant woman to pick them up, careful not to tip the plastic grocery-store platter of doughnuts I got for halftime.
“Don’t forget the dry cleaning on the way back,” I tell him.
“Hey—you want steak for dinner? I’m going to the market.”
“Yeah, fine,whatever. Jamie, get a move on, kiddo,” he says from the door to the garage.
Our backdoor opens to a stone path Bob and I laid whenwe first moved in almost twenty years ago. We were house poor but thrilled to own inwhatwas then an up-and-coming neighborhood. We’d brought a boom box out back and played the only radio station that came in. Jazz music. I lost steam halfway through the job that was supposed to take only a day but stretched out over two whole weekends because the pavers we’d chosen were mismatched. There were countless trips to and from the outdoor landscaping center. The second Saturday I lay back on the grass in the sun listening to Miles Davis and Bob whistling then cursing. I remember staring up at the clouds like a kid, smiling at life. We had a great house, there was a light breeze and I was lying on land we owned,my bare feet on our grass. I remember shadingmy eyes to watch Bob with a mathematician’s concentration size up stone after stone over the shallow hole he had dug. His college T-shirt was newthen. Itwas a Squeeze concert tee from when they played on campus. Our second or third date. Sophomore year. Boston College. 1981. After the concert we got drunk at a keg party at his friends’ off-campus house.
I was all over him back then. I thought it was sweet that he wanted to take it slow. He said I was different. He said he didn’t just want sex, he wanted to “go the distance.” He said he didn’t want to do anything to “mess us up.” So we took it slow. We fooled around but nothing major. We slept squeezed into my single bed under my Marimekko comforter to the smell of ramen noodles and beer. I remember wishing he weren’t so sloppy a kisser, but I figured it’d get better over time. It never did get better, but I figured there were more important things in life than having to wipe my mouth with the back of my hand after kissing him.
Our friends loved being with us because we weren’t the kind to couple off and make the single ones feelworse for being single. Wewere the fun ones.Wewent to parties and split up to talk with this friend and that—we didn’t need to be together every second. In fact, itwas not uncommon for us to go a fewdays without seeing one another. Like during midterms. Still,we’d always knowwhere the other onewas.We had our schedules memorized. Sometimes I’d wait for him after his sports-medicine class and get coffee at the student center cafeteria filled with flyers with roommates, band members, used books, tutoring.We had somuch in common therewas very little learning curve.Wewere both from Chicago, we’d both gone to parochial high schools, we were both only children. My best friend?my freshman roommate, Lynn— became his best friend. We double-dated with Lynn and her various boyfriends. When she found herself in between boys Bob fixed her up with his friend Patel from Delhi, India, but she can be embarrassingly difficult if she doesn’t like someone and she didn’t like Patel and Bob swore he’d never fix her up again but he did because I begged him to and finally she clicked with Michael who she ended up marrying and Bobwas best man and Iwas maidof- honor and it was all perfect. Storybook.We got married when Lynn and Mike got back from their honeymoon.We laughed and said we were like Fred and Ethel and Lucy and Ricky. Then we’d argue about who got to be Lucy and Ricky and who had to be Fred and Ethel. I’d imagined we’d live in houses next door to one another.Lynn and Iwould quit our jobs to raise our kids together. We’d have coffee after carpooling. Bob would play weekly pickup games with Mike and they’d talk about howcool theirwiveswere. I imagined Bob and me spooning every night likewe’d done inmy dormroom.Iwanted the white-picket fence. Iwas surewe’d have children, but at the time, being so young, I felt indifferent about it.
But somewhere in there I had doubts. I began to worry on the honeymoon actually.We were happy in the Caribbean, Jet Skiing, parasailing,snorkeling,sunset booze cruises with other honeymooners, but I started to notice we were running out of things to talk about. Like we’d had a set amount of sentences in the bank and by the time the honeymoon rolled around that savings account was empty.
On the beach one afternoon, gloomy clouds turned day into night and dumped rain like they were punishing us. It happened so quickly we didn’t have time to rush to the car, so we waited it out under our rented Heineken umbrella that was as useless at shielding us from the tropical shower as it was from the brutal white sun.
“Are you upset about something?” I asked him.”You’ve been so quiet.”
He shrugged and stared out at the kidney clouds.
“What is it?” I asked him. “I’m freezing?will you pass me the extra towel in the bag?”
He was mechanical. His arm bent at the elbow, dipping into the bag on his right, clutching the towel, passing it across to me on his left like claw-a-stuffed-animal machines at supermarket entrances.
“It’s just?” he said, fixing his eyes at the clouds rolling away to refill themselves. “This is it.”
“Wait, what? What’re you talking about? Are you freaking out?
Do you wish we hadn’t gotten married or something? Here, get under the towel.” I pressed closer into him. “Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m fine. Forget it. It’s stopping.Want to go back to the hotel?”
“What does ?this is it’ mean?”
He said, “Just forget it, okay? Forget it,” with a rattlesnake’s venom, so I backed off. I was young and figured it’d all work itself out. I thought it was a gloomy rainy day kind of mood.
I did wonder why we weren’t in the bedroom more. Our room had a king-size bed with big fluffy pillows and equally soft robes in the closet. Turn-down service included rose petals sprinkled on the bed. The hotel catered to honeymooners. Lots of finger foods. Chocolate-covered strawberries. I chalked his mood up to being exhausted from the swirl of wedding planning. Bob’s always been an active guy so I knew going in it wouldn’t be a languid lieon- the-hammock kind of trip. On the last night of the trip we went to a tiki-hut bar on the beach.We got a bucket of beer and listened to the steel-drum band, nodding to the beat, looking out at the ocean. Bob moved from beer to scotch. I’d only seen him drink scotch once when he was with his fraternity brothers at a homecoming party senior year.We watched the sunset. He jingled the ice cubes and drained the rest of his drink, holding up the glass to signal the waiter for another. I went to the bathroom, washed my hands, looked into the mirror and thought, I think I just made a huge mistake. There was no one to talk to about this but I worried. I worried and worried and worried myself into a thick inertia that kept me canceling plans with Lynn and Mike for nearly two weeks after we’d gotten home. I hadn’t wanted Lynn reading my mind.
The stone path isn’t a straight line. We thought it would be prettier winding to the garage like a miniatureYellow Brick Road. Now we all use the direct route across the grass. Lynn and Mike bought a house two streets over in our tree-lined neighborhood that feels like the suburbs but is just a few minutes from downtown Chicago. The two- and three-story houses on our street are similarly designed with small squares of grass, front porches, patios, decks and grass out back. Two-car garages that open to a long narrow alley that requires a tap on the horn and a wave to someone waiting politely to back out. Barbecues with large spatulas and tongs. Brick chimneys.Wreaths and roping in winter. American flags in summer. Indian corn in the fall. On any given week there can be three, four visits from Boy Scouts selling wrapping paper or magazine subscriptions, clipboards held by crunchy-granola college kids wanting to save the planet, a local guy down on his luck offering to clean up leaves with a flimsy rake he carries with him from house to house. In the winter he comes to shovel snow off our short walkways up from the sidewalk. He says we can pay him whatever we think it’s worth.
By the late 1980s Mike and Bob started losing their hair and watched their midsections thicken. Bob got glasses, Mike got contacts. One day I looked at my husband and realized he looked old. Not old old but?old. Like a grown-up. It was hard to see the college kid I’d married. Lynn and I stayed in shape together, enrolling in the same health club up the street, the one with aerobics classes that were only just catching on around the country. We got the Jennifer Aniston haircut just like everyone else. Then we grew it long and straightened it. Just like everyone else.
“Bye, Mom.” Jamie turns to give me a hug before trailing off after Andrew and Bob to soccer. “Thanks for the pancakes.”
When the door slams shut I pour the buttermilk batter down the sink and run cold water to dilute it.Cammy shuffles in rubbing her eyes,smudging the leftover makeup she never takes off before bed. The cabinets bang open and closed. The jars and bottles on the door of the fridge clatter when she pushes it shut with her foot, balancing milk in one hand, a bowl of cereal in the other.
“It smells like pancakes in here,” she says. She shimmies onto a high counter stool and hunches over the bowl, shoveling food into her mouth while she stares at the cartoon riddles on the back of the box, tipping it back to read the upside-down answers at the bottom.
Cammy’s most beautiful in the morning, still soft from sleep. Her skin is olive-colored and gets deeper, more Mediterranean looking, in summer. It’s flawless. She is petite with bird wrists and a graceful neck. Bee-stung lips. Large brown eyes. Her natural hair color was a deep rich brown before she dyed it. It looked like a caramel apple.Wavy and thick with bangs she used to trim so they didn’t catch on her eyelashes like they do now. She looks younger than sixteen. Until she layers on makeup that’s more like face paint. Hard teenage edges build up when she gets dressed. Her black clothes look like Halloween costumes.
She finishes her cereal and, climbing down from her stool, she almost trips, milk almost spills. She is all limbs, lanky, knobby knees, flat chest, unsure of where her arms and hands should go when she’s standing. Her lashes curl and her teeth are straight without having had braces. Now in the grip of the rebellious stage, she is fighting anything attractive about herself. She shrinks if she thinks someone’s staring at her and is horrified when someone says, “Wow, Cammy Friedman? I can’t believe it. I haven’t seen you since you were this big. Look at you.”
When Cammy was young she had a natural impulse to hug. Like Jamie now does. When she was a little girl I was still in the habit of crying on Mother’s Day.One year—I can’t remember how old she was—I’d thought Cammy and Bob were down making me breakfast in bed but then I felt a hand onmy shoulder. I sniffed back my tears and turned to her, she put her arms around me and patted me on the back saying, It’s okay, Mommy. Then she quietly left me to blowmy nose and screwa smile ontomy face in preparation for the lumpy pancakes coming up the stairs on a rickety wicker breakfast tray with a handful of wilting dandelions bobbing in a jelly jar.
About a decade later and she flinches at any human contact. When forced into a hug she bends forward so her shoulders and arms are the only things touching, keeping the rest of her body as far away as possible. It annoys Bob but then everything seems to annoy Bob these days.
We see things differently, Bob and I. I look at people’s eyes. Sometimes, not often but sometimes, I’ll catch the eye of a stranger by accident and there’s a feeling of depth or recognition, a strange familiarity like we’re the same breed of dog. Usually it’s people who have the same eyes I do: wide set and round and a shade of dark brown that deepens to match my pupils when I get upset.
But Bob sees everyone as feet. As in,”You mean Eddie with the Hush Puppies?” And I’ll say,”No, Eddie with the penny loafers you think have holes in the soles,” because I speak shoe now too.
To Bob, crowds are simply approaching feet. When he walks down the street he looks down.Nikes. Flip-flops. Manolos.Payless knockoffs. In winter, Uggs and L.L.Bean. When it’s someone in sneakers his eyes follow each step like it’s a beautiful woman he’s checking out but really he’s always watching heel impact. He majored in sports medicine.We had dinner with Mike and Lynn and toasted his new job at Nike and for a while he was bubbling over at the end of every day, telling me about howhewasworking on things that would make a tremendous difference for the next generation of runners. Somewhere in that first year he stopped bubbling and started drinking. Not too much but just enough to amplify his growing cynicism. Lynn said once that it was weird to see someone in their twenties so jaded, but I got all defensive and she dropped it. She and I both knew she was right, though.
Bob’s business is sport shoes, as they’re called in the industry, but mostly I tell people he designs sneakers. Before he started working at the top sport-shoe company in the world I never knew “shoe architecture” existed. Of course I’d read somewhere about how Nike started with a running coach and a waffle iron, but beyond that I was ignorant of all that went in to building a cross trainer.
The feet in Bob’s world can be divided into two categories: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy means equal wear and tear through from the ball to the heel. Unhealthy is everything else and to Bob most feet are unhealthy. So he speaks in declarations that sound like fortune cookies at a foot-fetish restaurant.
“Whoever thought of taking flip-flops mainstream?” he asked his bewildered dinner partner at a school fund-raiser. And:
“That guy has no idea that in ten years he’ll be seeing a podiatrist for collapsed arches,” he said to me while we were Christmas shopping at Old Orchard Mall. And:
“In a perfect world,we’d outlaw high heels and everyone would wear orthotics.”
He said that to the principal at Cammy’s school after a tense meeting in which the headmaster told us she was on probation again. The principal,Mr. Black, looks like the doctors used forceps when he was born. His pinched face matches his prim boardingschool Oliver Twist personality. I can’t stand him mainly because he seems not to be able to stand me. Or my family. Even before Cammy was in trouble, Mr. Black acted like we were a problem. Like we were high maintenance. When Cammy was in first grade we’d gone in to talk to him about moving her to another class with a more patient teacher and he started shaking his head halfway through our request and held up his hand. He said, “It’s a poor sportsman who blames the equipment.” I wanted to wring his neck. We tried talking to him about Cammy’s special needs and he waved us off like it was all bullshit. Bob said, “The kid’s in first grade?what could it matter?” And Mr. Black leaned across his desk and hissed, “Exactly.” Bob said, “No, I mean, what’s the big deal about her going into Miss Landis’s class.We hear she’s great with?” But before Bob could finish, Mr. Black stood and said,
“We’ll see what we can do.” We were dismissed. Being new parents we actually thought he’d come through, but now that I know him I know he didn’t give us a second thought. Son of a bitch.
So, years later,Mr. Black was walking us to the front door on his way up to a class he needed to audit and I knew he was trying to mask the click of my shoes in the empty hallway when he halfheartedly asked Bob how work was going. He made me feel embarrassed to have such loud footsteps when they’re just footsteps, for Christ’s sake. Bob had us standing inside the front door for nearly five minutes talking about the latest in heel air cushioning until I saved the impatient principal by taking Bob’s arm and saying,”Honey,we’ve got to get going.” I purposely avoided what I knew would be grateful headmaster eyes because after all he’d just slammed my daughter and anyway he’d always been a son of a bitch. I guess, then, Iwas savingmyself from having to hear Bob’s foot philosophy. Again.
“Jesus Christ, what’re we going to do?” I say on the way to the car. “I swear to God I honestly don’t know what else we can do.
We’ve grounded her a million times. I’ve tried to get her to open up to me?she’s just always so angry.Why the hell is she so angry all the time?”
“Allen Edmonds shoes,” Bob says, reaching for the keys he’d given me to hold because he insists they make his gait uneven. Four keys. Like he’s running a marathon at the Olympics.
“The guy’s got good taste in footwear, I’ll give him that,” he says.
“Bob. Focus. What’re we going to do about Cammy?”
“He’s being way too harsh,” he says, starting the car and adjusting the rearview mirror even though he was the one who drove us there. “Probation? For ignoring a teacher?”
“I swear to God I can’t believe it. How’d we get to this? And Bob, she didn’t just ignore Mrs. Cummings. You know that death stare she gives. That Goth stare is crazy scary. I guarantee you she was clamping her jaw shut and doing that stare. I’d send her to the headmaster, too, if I were her teacher. When that look comes over her it’s like a cloud or something. And that’s not even the issue. She’s been cutting class. She’s smoking on school property. What the hell? I’ve never smelled smoke on her, have you?”
“I think it’s a little much to suspend someone for a death stare,” he says, looking to the right then the left before inching out of the school parking lot. “And kids cut class from time to time. Give her detention, for God’s sake, but suspension?”
Right and left again a second time.You’d think he was pulling onto the Daytona Speedway the way he looks for cars before moving. Like they’re going to whiz at him at triple-digit speeds and send him spinning into the boards.
“He’s not suspending her,” I say.”He’s putting her on probation. You’re fine on this side, by the way.”
“Suspension, probation, same thing. They both look bad on her school file.”
“Exactly my point,” I say. “It’s green, that’s why everyone’s honking.”
“Will you just let me drive?”
“All I’m saying is we’ve got to be a united front when we get home.” I turn in my seat to face him because I can’t bear to watch him drive. He’s terrible behind the wheel and the worst part is he has no idea. Completely clueless. Cars will slow down alongside him, the drivers’ faces gnarled in anger, mouthing swears, but he doesn’t see them.
“What’s the party line?” he asks.
“She’s grounded, for starters. No computer. No cell.”
“How’s she going to call if something gets canceled or she needs to be picked up from somewhere?” he asks.
“What good is taking away the computer if she still has her cell? All she does is text.We’ve got to take it if the grounding’s going to have any impact. Besides, what’s so wrong with her finding a pay phone if there’s an emergency or she needs a ride? I don’t know why you’re worried about that part of it anyway since I’m the one who does all the picking up.”
“When was the last time you picked up Cammy or the boys from anything other than a random weekend soccer game?
They’re your kids, too, Bob.”
He looks ahead and I find myself wondering how upset I’d be if he died. I’d be worried about the kids growing up without a father, but me? I don’t know that I’d feel much.
“I think it’s about the adoption,” I say. My stomach twisting up tells me this is not a good time to bring it up, but there’s never a good time to bring it up.
“Oh, my God, so we’re blaming everything that goes wrong on the adoption? Are we going to dredge this up for the rest of our lives? Jesus, let it go.”
“You want to know what I think? I think most of everything that’s gone wrong with her is because of how she found out about the adoption.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. To tell a little girl the reason why she feels like she looks different from her brothers is because she’s not our ?real’ child? Honestly? What the hell, Bob. How many years ago was that—ten years? No, eleven. For the last eleven years she’s been feeling like an outcast in her own family.”
“Stop. It’s not like that and you know it,” he says. I feel our speed increasing and we are uncharacteristically in sync with the other cars along Lake Shore Drive.
“Oh, yeah? What’s it like then? Huh? You’re saying you didn’t blurt it out? You’re forgetting that we had a plan?that we were going to talk to her together at an age-appropriate time like the books say? You just plunge in without me and say something without thinking it throughand then you scratch your head in amazement like you’re surprised she remembers it word for word after all these years and then you sit here all smug and tell me it wasn’t like that?It was exactly like that, Bob. Exactly.”
Bob slows down and once again cars are swerving around us. A guy in a Prius gives Bob the bird and I wonder whether it’s because we’re the enemy now in our hateful gas-guzzling SUV or that Bob is driving under the speed limit or maybe just maybe he sees me spitting angry words at this man in my car, this man I no longer recognize, and he flips him off for me.
“Things have gotten so out of hand with her,” I say, backing off the adoption subject like I always do. “I don’t even know where to start. I put my finger on one leak and another one spouts.”
“I know,” he says. He’s lying. He doesn’t know. At least not when it comes to the kids, and frankly I’m sick of hearing how awful work is every single day. The boys crave time with him. Lately it’s taken me nagging him to get him to spend any kind of time with them.We ride the rest of the way in silence, which is fine by me.
I look at him and honestly? Honestly I am not in the least bit attracted to him. So that brings me back to my point:
Not one of my friends wants sex. Seriously. Not one.Well, not any of the ones with kids. I look around at other forty-something moms and they fall into two categories. One group has surrendered to the uniform of motherhood: sensible shoes, mom-jeans, sweatshirts, bulky full-length gray Michelin Man parkas in winter, shapeless old T-shirts in summer.
The second group is the pilates group. They’re hot. They wear jeans their daughters covet. They have defined biceps and flat tummys. Oh. And abs. Six-pack abs. Working out is a full-time job for them. It’s like there was a secret memo to do yoga, be in the best shape of their lives and shop in stores that carry tight T-shirts with plunging necklines, but the irony is there’s nowhere to go with it since no one’s having sex. I love a good crisply laundered white shirt, button-down like a man’s but formfitting. My jeans aren’t too tight but they aren’t baggy. My favorite shoes are a pair of old Gucci loafers I splurged on years ago when Bob got a great Christmas bonus. The best buy I’ve ever made: they’re well made so I’ve never had to have them resoled. The leather’s buttery and camel colored. They go with every pair of pants I own. Mostly though I wear skirts. I’ve never understood why more women don’t wear skirts. At school pickup not so long ago, Ann Slevick looked me up and down and said, “You’re always so put together,” and I thanked her but she didn’t smile. So the next day I made a point of wearing my jeans with the holes in them.
Sometimes at night when I’m changing into Gap boxers and an old Mount Rushmore T-shirt with holes and yellowed armpits, I inspect myself in our full-length mirror. I’ve got a decent hairstyle: that shoulder-length layered cut everyone seems to have. I haven’t overcolored it, so the brown looks natural, which is lucky. My ass isn’t so bad. Not for a forty-five-year-old. I’ve seen worse. It’s the front that bugs me. I hate my stomach. Lying down it feels flat if I don’t run my hands along my hips. It actually feels like it used to be before the boys. So all in all I suppose my body hasn’t started the middle-age decline yet, but it’s only because I’m tall and my limbs are long and there’s something deceiving in that. In old class pictures I would be the one standing on the side of the bleachers where all the kids were neatly sitting in rows. Our teacher stood on the other side. I cursed my height and wished I could stop shooting up like the Jolly Green Giant. It felt like a creepy magic trick, the way I grew taller and taller. It felt like GuinnessWorld Records tall. My classmates looked like Lilliputians to me and I hunched over, folding into my chest to try to compensate. Like Cammy, I had knobby knees and clumsy bruises. With no spatial reasoning I found myself cutting the corner into another room,my whole right side hitting the door frame on the way in. I finally stopped growing at five feet nine inches and boys started reaching and then passing me and all was forgiven, but I still have to remind myself to sit up straight.
“Have you guys heard about all these sexless marriages?” I ask my book club. We’ve been together for about five years now. It started with me and Lynn and Ginny from down the street. Ginny’s sweet. Maybe too sweet, but still. She’s thirty, fifteen years younger than me. She and her husband, Don, live in a bright green house everyone calls the Traffic Light. She’s the one I call when I need another set of hands for something around the house. Like hanging the drapes I sewed. She’s always home. While I never set out to, every once in a while I end up talking to her about life and I’m reminded why I like her so much. I think we bonded when she left her job as an investment consultant at a downtown banking firm about four, five years ago. Around that time on a summer night in white wicker chairs on my front porch we talked about what we really wanted out of life. I said I wasn’t sure but I knew it hadn’t happened yet. I remember this: she seemed startled. When she said, “But you have children,” I realized why. I used to think the same way. That life would make sense once we had children. Ginny mentioned she and Don had been trying to have a baby. She talked about finding something else in her life. Something with purpose. Something she could feel proud of. I told her what I wish someone had told me. I told her not to be in such a hurry to have children. I told her sometimes it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She nodded and sipped her wine. There wasn’t a hint, even a twinge of judgment from her. I knew this was something she’d share with Don in bed that night. “She doesn’t really love her children,” she’d marvel. “I never would’ve guessed it.”
Most people I know think the sun rises and sets on their children. They orbit around them like planets. So it was a big deal to feel open enough with someone other than Lynn about something so personal. I told Lynn we needed to let her into our friendship. She balked at first but after a little while, months maybe, she admitted Ginny’s pretty great.
So book club started with the three of us. Then Ginny asked if she could bring a friend she works out with, Leanne,who is kind of a pain in the ass but I don’t mind her. She’s funny but she doesn’t seem like she has a whole lot of depth. Or intelligence. I’ve always suspected Leanne cracks the bindings on her books to make it look like she’s not only read them, she’sstudied them. She might even dog-ear them then flatten out the folded triangles on random pages. Teresa Wdowiak came in along the way—I can’t remember who brought her. Then Sally Flanders cornered Lynn when Lynn was weeding some years ago and asked if our book club was accepting new members and if so could she be one of them. What choice did we have? There’s no stopping Sally Flanders.
There are eight of us here tonight, which is uncommon. Typically it’s four or five but we’re reading The Kite Runner this month and everyone wants to weigh in. Last month someone recommended. A Hundred Years of Solitude, but no one got past the first fifty pages so we canceled. Actually that’s not true. Kerry Kendricks read it and fought the cancellation, but she’s a show-off and no one wanted to sit there and listen to her lecturing us about South American literature.
We’re in Sally Flanders’s living room. I hate being in Sally Flanders’s living room. It’s like walking into Pier One through a curtain of the smell of potpourri and scented candles. I’m pretty sure I see a Glade plug-in across Sally’s living room, next to a grandfather clock that’s got an irregular tick. Sally favors floral design and needlepoint animal pillows. She tells us where to sit— that’s weird enough as it is—based on what pillows are there. She calls them her “cute critters.” Tonight I’ve got “Lucky Lassie” wedged between my lower back and the spires on the back of this, the most uncomfortable chair in the world. Lynn is rolling her eyes at something Leanne’s saying about the snickerdoodles she brought?she always wants a medal for her cooking, saying stuff like, Oh, it’s so easy, and then rattles on about how much trouble she went to for all of us. Special ingredients blah blah blah. Her cooking’s not even very good and Lynn usually finds a way to point that out. Tonight she eats one tiny bite of the cookie and leaves the rest on her empty plate, which she puts on the coffee table where Leanne’s sure to see it. I don’t know why Lynn lets Leanne get to her.
“I just read this article in MORE magazine or something— maybe it was O—that said forty-year-old women are just getting started,” I say.”It said something like we’re secure with our bodies and vocal about our needs. I can’t remember the exact wording but that was the gist.”
The laughter interrupts me.
“What?” I look around at them. “I’m being totally serious.
Don’t you worry about this?”
“No, she’s right,” Lynn says.”There was something on the Today show about it yesterday. They showed one couple who had sex on their honeymoon and that was it. Guess how long they’ve been married? Just guess.You won’t, so I’ll tell you. Twelve years.
Twelve years and no sex. I don’t know how she pulled it off, but I’ll have what she’s having.”
“What’s all the fuss about anyway?” asks Ginny. “We still have sex.”
“You’re in your thirties!” Lynn says. “Of course you’re still having sex. Wait’ll you turn forty.”
Paula, who complains anytime the conversation becomes social,mutters “off topic” in a tsking tone, hoping it will steer us back to book talk, but it rarely does. She usually sits there with her arms crossed and her lips tight. Tonight, though, she weighs in: “I’m so tired all the time.”
Everyone stops and looks at her. It’s an unspoken assumption that Paula’s asexual. She’s got a Dorothy Hamill haircut and what a doctor would definitely term morbid obesity. I’ve never seen her with anyone but her three-legged English bulldog, Freddy. I think Paula is about fifty pounds away from being housebound. She’s all business but I kind of like her for that. In the blackout a few summers ago she organized a candle drive so the elderly neighbors would be okay.She puts together a neighborhood newsletter on her computer. Birth announcements,who’smoving in or out.Want ads you can e-mail to her. A ten-speed for sale. Babysitters needed. Does anyone know a good plumber? That sort of thing. She’s the kind of person neighborhoods don’t realize they need.She’s the one who goes to the monthly Neighborhood Watch meetings and writes up safety information we already have. Lock your doors. Keep your front light on all night to discourage burglars. I respect Paula. In an emergency I like knowing she’s at arm’s length in her house with gray vinyl siding she hoses off every spring.
“I don’t know what you’re worried about.” Ginny looks at me and rolls her eyes. “You’re always so together, you know? Like you’ve got it all figured out. Plus, you and Bob are like the golden couple. I bet you have sex, like, every other day.”
I open my mouth to say, “Are you crazy? You can’t be serious!” but Lynn interrupts.
“As far as Michael knows, I have my period every day of the month,” she says. The laughter bounces off the cuddly critters or whatever they are, mixing with advice for what to say to get off the sex hook and then a juicy story about a sex-addict husband of someone we all know very well, according to Kerry Kendricks, who, when Lynn asked her if she still has sex, says:
“Who has the time?” Kerry Kendricks is on every committee at school and not once have I heard her called by just her first name.
Ginny: “Let me ask you something.” She looks at me. “Do you all think it’s the women or the men? Do women want sex and the men don’t or is it the other way around?”
Everyone’s talking at once so it doesn’tmatter that I don’t answer. I don’t tell them that neither of us wants sex. Only Lynn knows I haven’t stopped trying with Bob because I think it could still save us from being total strangers to one another. I haven’t stopped trying for sex even though I don’t want it any more than Bob does.
The next morning after the kids are off to school Lynn pulls up a kitchen chair and shakes a packet of Sweet’n Low into the tea I put in front of her.
“Before I forget, will you sponsor me for the breast cancer run?” I slide the form to her. “I know, I know. I swear this is the last time I’ll hit you up this year.”
“Breast cancer, Go Green, Save the Whales?”She sighs, fitting her name into the allotted space. “Sheesh, is there anything you don’t raise money for? Here you go.”
“Thanks, and for the record it was a Greenpeace fund-raiser not Save the Whales and it was about ten years ago.” I laugh. “Thanks for this. I really do appreciate it.”
“You should’ve taken it to book club last night,” she says. “I would’ve loved to have seen how much Paula gave, since she loves breasts more than anyone, I bet.”
“I don’t think she’s a lesbian,” I say. “You heard her.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Lynn says.
“So how about what Ginny said?” I settle across the table from her and just to make it seem like I’m bringing it up casually, I brush nonexistent crumbs off the table.
“What, you mean how they still have tons of sex?”
“Yeah, that,” then I pretend to remember something else Ginny said, “Oh, and then there was that comment about me?what was it?”
Lynn narrows her eyes at me. “You actually think I’m buying your little show? You really want to talk about Ginny’s sex life?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I barely finish the sentence without laughing.”Okay, okay.You’re right, you’re right.”
This is the best part about Lynn. She’s pretty much always right. The worst part about Lynn is that she knows it.
“You know why everyone thinks you’re so together? Because you act like you’re so together,” Lynn says. She’s blowing on her tea, waiting for it to cool.
“Everyone really thinks I’m so together?”
“I’m not so together.”
“I know that and you know that but I’m telling you, people think you’re so together.”
“Yup—” she takes a sip “—little do they know. Shoot! There’s the recycling truck and I forgot to put the bins out. Got to go.”
“Don’t forget dinner tomorrow!” I call out to her. At a school fund-raiser/silent auction last spring, I bid on dinner for two at a new sushi place downtown thinking it’d be a good date-night thing to do with Bob. SushiMax is the hardest reservation to get according to Chicago Magazine. I forgot all about it until they called to reconfirm, and of course Bob found some excuse to get out of it until I came out and asked if it was just that he didn’t want to go and he shrugged and said, “You know how I feel about sushi,” so I asked Lynn and told Bob he had kid duty.
I have been acting. Of course. I haven’t thought of it as acting but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. But doesn’t everyone put on a good face? Is anybody my age really happy? I’ve stretched my mouth into a smile for so long it’s become natural. And sometimes it isnatural?with the kids, especially when they were smaller. With Lynn. I know there are other times, too, I just can’t think of them off the top of my head. Oh. After yoga, when I make it to Imogen’s class. That’s another genuine smile.
On the rare nights just Bob and I have dinner, it’s so silent I restrain myself from upending the kitchen table just to jolt us out of this stupor.
Bob once said, “The only constant in our marriage is the edge of the cliff we’re hanging on to, killing time until we tire ourselves out and give in to our inevitable collapse.”
It was fairly early in our marriage. We were reading in bed. We’d been married probably three years by then. I think it was during the fertility nightmare, but that’s a whole other story. I remember it was summer and all the windows were open because the air conditioner didn’t work. When we’d moved in, Bob had said, priority number one was central air, but the months ticked by and two, three years later there we were with a broken window unit and air so humid I was sweating just lying there.
“Listen to this,” he said. I put my book down to wipe my palms on the white sheet while he read a sentence aloud.
?The only constant in our marriage?'” He recited more while I was staring up at the ceiling thinking a ceiling fan might not be such a bad idea after all.
“Are you listening?” he asked. Then he read it again and that time I heard it.
I turned on to my side and flattened the pillow so I could see him, his expression. I remember wondering if he was simply impressed with the writing—sometimes he read passages aloud to anyone within earshot just to marvel at the sentence structure.Or was it something else? He’d put the book down and was staring into the room so I only had his profile. Then, almost to himself, he said:
“So I guess things could be worse.”
I waited for a laugh but there had been no sarcasm in his tone. It was as if he was comforted knowing at least we were doing better than the couple hanging on to the cliff, if only a little bit better. That’s the way he said it. Like he hadn’t realized anything could be worse than what we were living through.
I couldn’t think of what to say. I remember struggling to find words but none came. After a few minutes of dead silence, both of us lying there, our books splayed facedown across our chests, he said,”We should get a ceiling fan.” He paused to consider the idea. “I don’t think they’re that expensive. It wouldn’t be so hard to install. Probably only take me a day. Victor could come over and help me with the electric. What do you think?”
I’d shut my eyes and when he glanced over for my opinion I pretended I’d fallen asleep. I faked a few random muscle twitches. I heard him sigh then felt him shift to reach the lamp. His book fell on the floor, more shifting, and I thought maybe he’d gently lift my book off my chest, but soon there was snoring. I realized I’d been tensing every muscle to stay still until I had the night to myself to think about what Bob had just said. It was a bombshell, no doubt about it.
Around the time my eyes adjusted to the dark—I remember this part because I was staring at the ticky-tacky drapes I’d never gotten around to replacing,when it hit me. It wasn’t a bombshell. Things could be worse but not by much. I just hadn’t wanted to see it.
But here’s the rub: once he said it out loud, after that night, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I still can’t.