I am totally not kidding. Even one day before I set up the Blogger account, delivering a public blow-by-blow-delivered-in-pretty-much-daily-installments account of the breakdown of my marriage, it was the last thing on earth I’d ever have imagined myself doing. Really. Ever. In fact, as a lifelong hoarder of any and all unflattering information about myself, I’m convinced that if there had been a least likely to blog about the intimate details of her life title in my high school yearbook, it would have gone to me. Assuming, of course, that blogging had been invented then. Which it hadn’t.
And while there were other ways of keeping the world informed of life updates, i.e. the dreaded Christmas newsletter, those tend to be restricted to people you actually know, IRL. And even so, I’d always thought they should be packed full of stuff like we all enjoyed our trip to Bermuda, Rick made managing director, the boys are happy and healthy, not, the night Rick left me I was on my knees.
Not that I put that in the newsletter—or the blog either, actually. There are some things you just need to keep to yourself. But it was true. Literally. Which makes it sound like I was abasing myself in some interesting or even titillating way, doesn’t it? Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Or not unless you have some kind of fetish that makes you consider scrubbing snot off the sofa with Pellegrino water either of those.
The upholstery on our living room furniture stained at everything. Red wine, coffee, tea, and chocolate milk were obvious offenders. Less obvious, but equally problematic were white wine, ginger ale, a long look from anyone under the age of twenty-two, domestic seltzer, and tap water. The only thing that didn’t leave water marks was the damned Pellegrino.
So who buys a sofa like that? No one in their right mind. Which leaves Rick, my husband, and Jordan Hallock, our interior designer. And if you’d like to put money on neither of them ever having de-snotted it at 10:30 at night, you’d be right.
Anyway, we kept a stash of Pellegrino for the sofa. Well, the sofa and Maria, the cleaning lady who didn’t actually clean. Anything else gave her indigestion. Rick insisted on a more highly desirable (translation: impossible to get) brand that we used to have to order from Finland, but could now purchase directly from a man in Hoboken, known only as Lars.
This particular night, I was on my knees uncapping the Pellegrino when I heard Rick come in. His keys clattered predictably into the bowl on the foyer table and then, equally predictably, I heard him pause to take off his shoes. Jordan’s rugs made everything around me, including Rick, look low-maintenance. Once after a particularly out-of-control playgroup, I personally (Maria didn’t do hands and knees) had scrubbed at least 1500 square feet of wheat-free carob brownie out of an antique Chobi with a toothbrush.
“Hi.” Rick came in, loosening his tie so that the knot hung low on the still-crisp white of his shirt (hand-ironed for precisely twenty-seven minutes at the organic shirt launders in Chelsea), and sat down on the sofa opposite. Considering that I personally delivered his shirts to and collected them from Chelsea (Maria didn’t do across-the-Bridge errands), I suspect I could be forgiven for wondering whether this particular shirt could be hung up and worn again. He frowned. “Why do you have the lights so low?”
I liked to leave them dim in the evening so that I could see across the sweep of river to lower Manhattan. It was one of the things I most loved about Brooklyn Heights, this leafy urban suburb, how much a part of Manhattan it felt, and yet, how separate it was. Our tenth floor apartment seemed to hang, suspended over a city that was never exactly the same twice, it’s unpredictability in some ways it’s most predictable feature. Tonight the office buildings blazed, reflected back in the glass of the river. The lights of the cars moved steadily across the Brooklyn Bridge and beneath it sat the ever-present lone police boat with its flashing light.
Inside everything was tranquil and exactly as it should be. For once. Well, except for the snot. The kids had actually eaten balanced meals. Their homework was done, backpacks packed for morning. They were bathed and asleep under their Garnet Hill rocket ship bedding. Cadbury was walked and hunkered down for the night within paw’s reach of her favorite drinking spot, the guest bathroom toilet. The laundry was folded (by me—Maria didn’t, um, fold things). The dishwasher hummed. Or it would have hummed if it hadn’t been a Bosch Integra Vision, famed for not making even the smallest encroaching noise.
The evening we’d first looked at the apartment, Rick had fallen in love with the view, with the way necklaces of lights on the spans of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges to the right and the Verrazano Bridge to the left seemed to frame the city. He had stood, looking at it for so long that I’d feared we were in danger of overstaying our welcome.
Chris Taylor, the realtor, had hovered, while Rick had stood in the corner formed by two windows, staring out at the falling dusk. The sky was ebbing to purple and the Statue of Liberty glowed against it. I was vaguely aware of the spectacle, but was almost more struck by Rick’s reaction to it. Rick was not a romantic, melancholy over the view, kind of guy. Rick was a real estate is an investment. Will this give us a good return? kind of guy.
But as I’d raced back and forth between three-year-old Noah, who had taken a pointed interest in the owners’ collection of antique Chinese porcelain, and one-year-old-just-learned-to-walk-yesterday Jared who had seemed intent on making sure that his smudgy toddler fingers made contact with every inch of the enormous windows, Rick had stood, visibly seduced.
It was almost like watching your husband glimpse his next wife walk by. The coveting was palpable. But instead of another woman luring him, it was something seducing us both. In fact, I later thought it was one of those marital moments in which you know instinctively that you understand the person with whom you’ve chosen to build a life, that you’re in perfect accord.
“I want it,” Rick had said, as soon as Chris was out of hearing range—even in the throes of intense passion, he wasn’t giving away any negotiating leverage.
Was that cold? Maybe. I don’t know. I only know that at the time I saw it as careful. A form of protection of us and what we’d built, an awareness that it wasn’t something to be squandered. “Believe it or not, I could tell,” I’d said. “The drooling was what you might call a tipoff.”
Rick laughed, one of his rare laughs. We were strapping the kids into car seats at the end of the little tree-shaded cul de sac over the East River. The street was right at the point where the River widened into New York Harbor. The BQE was too sharply below us to see the gridlock and, at that moment, anyway, there were none of the traffic helicopters that hugged the air ceaselessly over this part of the city. It felt like an oasis of calm compared to the blaring taxi horns and grime of the upper Upper West Side, where we lived at the time, which anyone will tell you is not at all the same thing as the Upper West Side. Or wasn’t back then, anyway. I watched, across the roof of the car, as he bent down to hand Jared his sippy cup and then straightened and leaned on top of the roof, uncharacteristic longing on his face.
“It’s like…” he shrugged. “I don’t know, meeting you, Cass. I knew that was it and I know this is too.”
I flushed with pleasure. He wasn’t exactly gushy and still, after all these years, when he said something like that I still felt it go right through me. I knew, too, about the apartment, felt what he was feeling.
But for Rick it couldn’t be that impractical, it couldn’t just be about a feeling, so he was searching for logical, rational words. “Being able to buy it, it’s like an outward sign of everything we’ve accomplished.”
The truth was that there was no we involved in us being able to do that. It was him, the accomplishment of going from a math Ph.D. to a hedge fund was all his. He was being generous in sharing the credit.
“Go tell Chris,” I’d said. “Make an offer, but in person, not on his cell.”
He was torn, I could tell, between something he wanted because, well, he just did and doing the sensible thing. Looking further, longer, for a better bargain.
“I have to go pee-pee,” Noah had announced from his car seat.
“I don’t know.” I loved this about Rick—his carefulness, his utter lack of impetuousness.
“Mommy! I’m gonna leak soon!”
“Just do it, Rick.” I looked at him and couldn’t help thinking of his mother, with her twelve room duplex on Fifth Avenue to which we were rarely even invited (not, mind you, that I considered this a loss).
He looked down at something, either his shoe or the car tire. I couldn’t tell from where I was standing. A bird sang in the tree right above my head, almost startling me—no birds sang outside our window at 123rd and Broadway. Rick, apparently having had confirmation from either his shoe or the tire looked up, nodded and headed after Chris.
I unbuckled Noah from the booster and let him go pee around the corner of the building, half thinking that if anyone from the co-op board was looking, I’d be saving us a hell of a lot of money.
But the funny thing was that once it was ours, Rick had lost interest in the view. In fact, whether or not to allow Jordan Hallock to swathe the windows in yards of draperies had been the subject of some disagreement between us. Hiring a designer had felt frighteningly grownup. “These windows are awfully bare,” she’d said, on her first reconnaissance. “I think we want to play them up. Make them dramatic. Get them to make a statement,” she said on her second.
“They’d take the fifth.” I was no way letting her cover my windows.
Her look implied that the two of us would not, in the future, be meeting for any girl talk over skim lattes. “Ha, ha. Chintz. Or maybe linen,” she’d mused, tapping the window frame with a manicured fingernail. “They need to just… pop. Otherwise the view will overwhelm the space. People will look outside instead of in.”
I’d thought that was the point. “I’m sorry Jordan, but no.” My words sounded blunter than I’d meant them to because I’d held them back too long. “I don’t want curtains.”
She’d seemed curious, as if I were a specimen she’d never seen before and she was highly interested in identifying. “But the sun,” she’d asked. “Isn’t it too strong?”
“And you do know that it fades the furniture?” Her tone was the kind usually reserved for discussing either advanced stage cancer or election year politics. “Those beautiful things we’ve ordered! That Italian linen. Don’t you want to—”
“No.” I wasn’t even certain why I was so fiercely sure of it. “No curtains.”
She’d shrugged and seemed to give up. But, as it turned out, Rick was subjected to an over-the-phone harangue, and I, in turn, was subjected to an in-person argument. “For God’s sake, Cassie.” Was it my imagination or did his words and his tone smack alarmingly of I can’t take you anywhere? “She’s been featured in Metropolitan Home, Elle Décor, and House & Garden. She knows what she’s doing, and we should leave her alone to do it.”
I stood my ground with him too, pointing out that wherever we lived, I actually lived. That he was more like a visitor, breezing in evenings and weekends, using up commodities that needed replenishment like bottled water, soap, red wine and toilet paper and asking questions like whether the next door neighbors who’d been there for going on two years had just moved in and whether we had any milk, and if so, where would it be?
And even though ownership seemed to lessen the wonder for Rick, I never got tired of it. The clean, sharp light in the day fascinated me, as did the way the clouds moved in over the river, the way the sun melted and the sky slowly turned purple as the lights came on. The way the river changed from blue to black to green, and the air from the clearest clear to so thick you could practically grab it, the bright orange of the Staten Island Ferry making its predictable way across a black river.
And then, a year after we’d moved in, I’d watched that first plane. And stood, immobile, thinking both nothing and a million simultaneous thoughts, of Rick somewhere over on that side of the river, of my boys, both safe with me and in as much danger as it was possible to be in.
It had been months after that Tuesday morning before I could even get myself to stand at the window. During those first days when the city had been characterized by silence, by the complete absence of ordinary noise, and the smoke rose and the only cars crossing the Bridge had been emergency vehicles with their hauntingly unnecessary flashing lights—as though by asserting the need to hurry, they could create it when, in fact, now there was all the time in the world—I’d even thought once or twice about calling Jordan to come over and swag and cover to her heart’s content.
I’d never picked up the phone to make that call, though, and eventually, the fires stopped burning and the city struggled back to its feet. But the view felt different, altered. First by what so glaringly wasn’t there, but then, after the shock had worn off, by what was there, inside of me. A new awareness of days and chances gone by, and how little it took to change so much so quickly.
By outside glance, my life was pretty perfect. We’d been spared from the disaster, literally outside our window. We were healthy, had wealth by anyone’s standards, and if we weren’t greeting each morning with ecstasy, we were certainly happy enough. But here’s the thing about those lives: they never feel the same from the inside. And that’s a truth I’m intimately familiar with.
You know those families you see in magazines at Christmas? The house is glamorous, fires are snapping in the hearth? Everyone is glowing with health, good looks and prosperity? The sidebar fills you in on a couple of family traditions and an heirloom recipe? You instantly know that these people have perfect lives and are completely and confidently certain of their place in the world.
They’re clearly having a much better, more meaningful, more joyful family holiday than you are. For sure, Great Aunt Lorraine isn’t taking out her dentures to chew desiccated Butterball turkey before demonstrating her technique of hooking her orthopedic stockings up to Victoria’s Secret garter at their house. No one’s getting drunk and abusive on cheap sherry there because they’re too busy eating the finest food, sipping vintage champagne by a wood fire, and opening boxes from Tiffany’s.
That’s my family (see Good Housekeeping, December 1974 and Gourmet, November 1976—A Very Concord Christmas and A Thanksgiving to Behold, respectively). The food—those heirloom family recipes?—fake, dreamed up and created completely by food stylists. As fake as the smile my father is wearing as he carves the glistening bourbon-glazed, wild mushroom and chestnut stuffed turkey in the picture that was taken two days before he drove out of the familial driveway with his belongings in the trunk. By the time the magazine hit the newsstands, six months later, he was living in the Back Bay with his twenty-two-year-old dental assistant.
So I think it’s pretty safe to say that I understood firsthand that externals—silent stainless appliances, interior designers of the moment, killer views, telegenic looks and family pedigrees that make magazine editors want to do pictorial spreads on you—don’t necessarily buy happiness. Stability, responsibility, constancy and love. Those buy happiness, a man whose sense of commitment ensures he’ll never leave for the long legs of a dental assistant buys happiness.
And I was grateful every day—or every day that I remembered to be—that despite a few flaws, like a sense of humor that was on the slight side, the occasional lapse into pomposity, the smallest tendency towards rigidity, my husband was that man. Rick had those qualities in spades.