Hus­band and Wife (excerpt)

Leah Stewart

PMS 9 | 2009

Excerpt from the forthcoming novel Husband and Wife (Harper)

My name is Sarah Price. I’m thirty-five years old and a work­ing mother, although for a num­ber of rea­sons I don’t like that phrase. That I have a job and two small chil­dren is a bet­ter, if less suc­cinct, way to put it. My hus­band is a fic­tion writer. He’s pub­lished a cou­ple of books, and one of them did quite well, so you might rec­og­nize his name if I told it to you, which I won’t, because I don’t want you think­ing, oh yeah, that book, I read that, it was good. This is not about that.

Some­day I’ll look back and thirty-five will seem much younger than it does now. I don’t feel old now, exactly, though I do, at times, feel weary. But in the last cou­ple of years I’ve begun to expe­ri­ence the signs of impend­ing age. The stray white hair and the inabil­ity to drink more than two beers with­out a hang­over. The bad knee and the crack­ing in my hip joint and the desire to say “oof ” when I sit down in a chair. The whims of my increas­ingly agi­tated hor­mones. And, most dis­turbingly, the dawn­ing con­vic­tion that such infir­mi­ties will only increase in num­ber. Judg­ing by the way these things sur­prise me I must have believed age would never hap­pen to me. For a long time, per­haps longer than I should have, I thought of myself as young. My ado­les­cence was pro­longed, in the way all the mag­a­zines have been insist­ing, by the fact that I waited until my thir­ties to get mar­ried and have chil­dren, that I waited so long to get a reg­u­lar job and start wor­ry­ing about my credit card debt. I’m a grownup now. There’s no dis­put­ing that, espe­cially not to the two small peo­ple who call me Mommy.

For a long time I called myself a poet. As a child I con­cen­trated on rhyming fun and sun, and then in high school I devoted myself to metaphors fea­tur­ing storm clouds and the moon. For col­lege work­shops I wrote son­nets about what I saw as the real subjects–time and death and the end of love, although what did I know, what did I know, about any of that. Both my notions about those things and the poetry that emerged from those notions were ludi­crously abstract. By the time I went to grad school I’d given up the effort to arrive at pro­fun­dity through grand asser­tions and gone back to writ­ing free verse that was more or less about myself.

I take back my claim that at twenty and twenty-one I knew noth­ing of time and death and the end of love. I shouldn’t offer up such a com­mon­place untruth. It’s easy, isn’t it, to fall into the trap of devalu­ing what we once knew and felt, as though the com­pli­cated and com­pro­mised expe­ri­ences of adult­hood are some­how more authen­tic than the all-consuming ones of youth. Cer­tainly I knew the pain and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the end of love. Of course I did. Most of us learn that early.

• • •

I’ll begin with an end.

We were late for a wed­ding, or if not late yet in immi­nent dan­ger of being so. And as usual I was ready and my hus­band was not. I’d been ready for half an hour, dur­ing which time he’d spent twenty min­utes wor­ry­ing about a small red wine stain on the tie that matched his suit, and ten min­utes locat­ing one of his shoes. The chil­dren were in the kitchen with the babysit­ter, a teenager whose blank youth­ful­ness made me ner­vous. I could hear the baby cry­ing, and I was as clenched as a fist, because I was still breast­feed­ing and the hor­mones made it painful to hear him cry. I wanted to go get him, but I knew if I picked him up he’d want to nurse, and I was wear­ing a dress already–a silk dress, at that, eas­ily stained by breastmilk–and besides I’d been think­ing for half an hour that surely my hus­band would be ready to go any minute and I didn’t want to hike up my dress and set­tle down with the baby only to have him say, “Oh, you’re not ready to go?” and then dis­ap­pear to his study to read music reviews online.

So I was annoyed with my hus­band, and get­ting more annoyed by the minute, but I was try­ing to keep that in check, because I’d been look­ing for­ward to this wed­ding, and I didn’t want to fight in the car all the way there, and then spend the whole wed­ding strug­gling against the urge to make dire com­ments to the other guests about life with a man. Life with my man, in par­tic­u­lar, which at that moment con­sisted of crawl­ing around on the floor in my dress, search­ing under the fur­ni­ture and the dis­carded clothes and the pile of New York Times he’d left there since Sun­day for his miss­ing shoe. Mean­while he sat on the bed hold­ing the one shoe he’d been able to locate, star­ing blankly at the wall. I remem­ber think­ing, “Why in God’s name doesn’t he put that shoe on?”

“Sweetie,” I said. “Why don’t you go ahead and put that shoe on?”

He didn’t appear to have heard me. I sighed. Let’s just get out the door, I told myself. Let’s have a good time. On the floor in front of me I saw one of my daughter’s makeshift baby beds–this one hold­ing her tiny stuffed pig, whose name, inex­plic­a­bly, was Hemp All. I felt a rush of amused moth­erly affec­tion. After a moment I real­ized that I was look­ing at my husband’s shoe, trans­formed by a burp cloth into a bed for a pig.

I dis­lodged the pig, jumped up, pre­sented the shoe to my hus­band with a flour­ish. He took it, still with the blank expres­sion, look­ing like he had no idea what the thing was for. “Let’s put the shoes on,” I said. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

“Sarah,” he said, “I have to tell you some­thing. Some­thing about the book.”

When you live with a writer you know what he means by the book. He means his book, the one he’s work­ing on, or, as in this case, the one he recently fin­ished, the one that had arrived that very day in the form of advance reader copies. Three of them in a big padded enve­lope, with shiny cov­ers and my husband’s pic­ture on the back. We’d exclaimed over them. We’d showed them to our daugh­ter, and laughed at how lit­tle she was impressed. We’d high-fived, only half-joking, over the note from my husband’s edi­tor: This is going to be the big one!

“What about the book?” I asked.

He took a breath. “Not all of it is fiction.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I asked, but I already knew. I knew what he meant, though that knowl­edge was con­tained not in my brain, not yet, but in a space that began to open inside my stom­ach, slowly, a black cir­cle, expand­ing like an aper­ture. I’d read the book. I’d edited it, for God’s sake. I knew it inti­mately, word by word. And I wouldn’t even have had to read it to know what he meant. It was right there in the title: Infi­delity. I knew what he meant before he said it, and know­ing, I would have liked to stop him, but he said it before I could.

He said, “I cheated on you.”

“What?” I said, because know­ing is dif­fer­ent from believ­ing. And then, “We have to go to a wed­ding.” That seemed rel­e­vant at the time.

And there you have it–the begin­ning of the end, as peo­ple like to say, as though there were such a thing, as though the begin­ning and the begin­ning of the end weren’t one and the same.