Authors: Patricia Mann
Tags: #Fiction, #Family Life
Seattle WA 2014
Copyright 2014 Patricia Mann
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Cover Design by Loretta Matson
Edited by Clarice Joos
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to similarly named places or to persons living or deceased is unintentional.
Print ISBN 978-1-62015-580-6
EPUB ISBN 978-1-62015-601-8
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014918419
I dedicate this book to my family. To my parents, who are only similar to Beth’s parents in all the good ways: you’ve shown me what a dedicated, loyal, loving long-term marriage should be. To my husband: you are everything to me. I couldn’t do any of what I do or survive all of life’s craziness without you by my side. To my sons: Sam and Jack are my tribute to you and something I can leave behind to show that the two of you will always be my greatest loves of all.
This book would not have been written if it weren’t for the incredibly supportive community of fellow authors I’ve been blessed to find. Thanks to everyone at Booktrope, especially my manager, Sárka-Jonae Miller, who nudged me to stay calm and keep writing, even when I was having panic attacks about how to balance work, family, and finishing a novel. I’m also so grateful to all the Chick Lit Goddesses. They are the most knowledgeable, supportive, funny women who provide me with information, encouragement, and a safe venting space, all of which fill my empty writing tank regularly.
Clarice Joos, my editor, can only be described as my new sista from anotha motha. We’re both tough chicks from Long Island on the outside with mushy gushy centers. She is the most gifted editor. She found things in the book that horrified and fascinated me. It is a much, much better book because of her. Lydia Johnson did a stellar job of proofreading and I adore the cover that Loretta Matson designed. Thank you both for your hard work and dedication to helping me and so many other authors put those all-important finishing touches on our work.
It can’t be a coincidence that Beth’s best friend’s name is Shelly and somehow the universe brought author Shelly Hickman and I together shortly after Is This All There Is? was published. We have so much in common, it’s uncanny. I was writing Is This What I Want? at the same time she was writing her new novel, Menopause to Matrimony, which is a beautiful book that you should all read. Shelly provided just the right balance of cheering me on while challenging me to improve upon what I had written. Each time she sent me new chapters, I felt the need to send her more of mine in return. It wasn’t as if writing our books together was a race to see who’d finish first, but rather a team sport with each of us lifting each other up when we didn’t think we could make it to the end of the game.
Jamie Roberts and I connected online over great conversations about Beth’s story. I was thrilled when she agreed to be a beta reader for this book and as a result, more deep conversations ensued. Thank you so much for your support, Jamie.
Melissa Ramile gave me such detailed and thorough notes that every time she sent a new set, I would grab a cup of coffee and sit with them for a long time, absorbing every bit of her brilliant feedback and emotional reactions to the story. Thank you, Melissa!
My first and best beta readers were my parents. That may seem strange, given the nature of the story, but that’s the kind of relationship we have. They devoured chapters as I sent them and showered me with praise. I am the luckiest daughter alive.
Since I’ve come back around to thanking family members, I’ll conclude with one more. We have our biological families and then we have families of the heart. Corie Skolnick launched and nurtured my writing career like no one else. She was among the first to read both books and I awaited her response more eagerly than anyone else’s. Not only does Corie understand me better than I understand myself, she is also tapped into the human psyche and complexities of relationships in ways that go beyond anything you can imagine. Not to mention that she has the biggest bullshit meter on the face of the planet. I wouldn’t be me without my Corie. Love you.
I SAT THERE TRYING
to smooth my frizzy hair and fan my sweaty armpits. The heat and humidity were impossible that August morning. So much for the supposedly dry heat of Los Angeles. I felt like a terrible student, knowing what she would ask, knowing that I would not have the correct answer. I had a dream the night before that I was back in college, waiting for class to start, when I realized I completely forgot to do the ten-page term paper due that day. I never imagined I’d be in school again, but here I was, waiting for a reprimand from my teacher.
I tried to fluff up one of the decorative little mauve pillows on the charcoal gray loveseat and shove it behind my aching back for support, but the thing was worthless. Setting it on my lap instead, I figured my attention would no longer be on my back once the conversation began.
She finally came in and sat down across from me. Avoiding her gaze as she settled into her big, plush office chair, I studied the painting of the man afloat on a little boat, sky ablaze all around him. Its meaning seemed to change with every visit.
Carly, my therapist, didn’t wait for me to look at her.
“So did you talk to him about it?”
Turning to her, I took in her fitted black pencil skirt, lavender silk top, and her perfect hair. It annoyed me that some women were blessed with hair unaffected by the weather. Her thick, shoulder length, almond brown locks were smooth and her bangs fell into a neat, even line to meet her eyebrows.
“I couldn’t. I thought I was ready after we planned it out last week, but even when the timing seemed right, the words refused to come out.”
She nodded slowly, a nod I had come to know well. Each nod meant something a little different and I had worked hard to interpret every one. The subtle differences in speed and duration of the nod, the length of eye contact during the nod, whether it came with a smile or serious expression… the nuances were endless. This particular nod was easy—equal parts compassion and understanding with a little sprinkling of disappointment. She couldn’t hide it.
“How could I bring it up when it’s still so soon after… everything that happened?”
“Beth, using euphemisms like, ‘everything that happened,’ won’t lessen the weight of your affair. It’s something you have to keep facing head on.”
“Do we have to call it that? I hate that word. I mean, I didn’t even have sex with him. I only kissed him three times and did a little more the one time I went to his apartment. That was it. My God, the time we were physically intimate with each other probably totaled less than three hours. Why do I have to go through this hell over three hours?”
I waited for her to respond. She didn’t. I understood. This was one of those times when she knew I needed to spew and it was her job to simply hold the bucket.
“Damn it. Okay, I cheated on my husband. The wonderful, perfect, stable, good-looking, kind, devoted father of my children. He was distant but he was willing to work on things. Instead of accepting his meager attempts, I got sucked into an infatuation with a twenty-one-year-old college kid. A kid fourteen years younger than me. A kid who had once been my student. A kid who simply had a crush on his teacher and was too young to understand the devastation that acting on that crush could cause to her marriage and family.”
I waited again. Now I got the tiny nod with wide eyes and no smile—encouragement to keep going.
“I lied. I snuck around. I wasn’t fully present for my kids. I pushed my closest friend away when she tried to get me to see the mistake I was making. I risked everything that’s important to me because I was obsessed with this stupid kid and I don’t even understand why. I don’t know if it was just physical or if there was something real between us. It’s so confusing.”
More silence. Piercing eye contact. No nod, just silence.
“And what kills me is that the worst part for my husband seems to be that I told the stupid kid I loved him. But I didn’t actually tell him, did I? I typed it to him in an instant message. I don’t think I could have said it to his face. Maybe if I had tried to say it in person I wouldn’t have been able to and it would have forced me to admit it wasn’t true. But in cyberspace, things aren’t as real, right? It’s a virtual world, like in Sam’s video games, where you can kill people and they come right back to life. Where you can type the words “I love you” to a man who’s not your husband in a weak, confused moment at 2:00 in the morning and then take it back so that it never actually happened.”
My stomach twisted. I stood up and paced the room, digging my nails into the flesh on my scalp as if I could massage away the intensity of the repetitive, self-flagellating thoughts constantly generated beneath it. The calligraphy on the psychology degrees hanging on the wall was a blur of indistinguishable words. I was sick of talking about this. I was sick of thinking about this. I became aware of my lower back pain again and stood in silence with my head hanging down.
Wondering if Carly would think I was going crazy, I turned back to face her. I felt self-conscious about how unruly my wavy brown hair must look and wished I had a rubber band to pull it back into. Then I reminded myself of the session when Carly mentioned in passing that it made sense to her that Dave would fall for me, given how smart and beautiful I am. She said it as if I already knew it, as if she was just stating the obvious. But I didn’t feel that way about myself. I never had. I tried to flatten my hair from the puffy roots to the curly tips that fell onto my chest.
As I searched her face to see what kind of look she was giving me now, I found pity. That was always the worst—even though she had confessed to me that she had been married once before her current marriage, a long time ago, and cheated on her first husband.
“Can’t you just do some kind of hypnosis trick to make me and Rick forget the whole thing? If only we could go back in time.”
My spewing lasted for almost the entire 50 minutes. And she held her vessel beautifully, as always. When our time was up, she reminded me of the thing I had been trying hard not to think about.
“Beth, you did the right thing when you cut off all contact with Dave toward the end of the spring semester. And you’ve had the whole summer away from school to focus on repairing your marriage, to work on yourself, to reconnect with your kids. You’re making very good progress.”
I sighed and smiled a little as I looked into her eyes, soaking up the praise even though I knew exactly where she was going. And she knew I knew.
“We need to talk about it next week. We need to think about how you’ll handle it if you see Dave when you go back to teaching in a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, I know. I know.”
Sometimes returning home from a session with Carly, I felt elated and hopeful. Other times, my mood was markedly darker than when I had left. Rick was always tuned in to see which it would be. Even the kids, though they had no way of knowing where I had been, seemed a little more on edge when I walked through the door every Monday at 7:15 pm. But that never stopped Sam from pushing my buttons whenever he had the chance.
“Sam, didn’t I tell you to get all these Lego pieces off the dining room table before I got home? You know Jack can almost reach it and one of these days when we’re on our way to the ER because he has a tiny Darth Vader head stuck in his throat, you’re gonna feel…”
Stop it, Beth. Stop it right now. Don’t do this.
Sam put his video game controller down and slinked over to start scooping Legos into the big blue plastic bin with a growing crack down the side. I made a note to switch the Legos to a new bin, later, when I had more energy.
“Jeez, Mom, you don’t have to yell. Why are you in such a bad mood?”
I looked at him and thought about how, unlike my envy of Carly’s perfect mane, I was glad my son inherited his father’s thick, straight, blondish hair. He was such a good-looking child and while it may not be fair, it made me happy to think this would make his life easier.
“Sorry, Samo. Didn’t mean to yell. I’m just tired. Where are Daddy and Jack?”
He shrugged his shoulders and glanced back at the paused video game. “Come on, I’m just about to beat my highest score.”
“After you get the rest of these Legos put away.” I needed to hold my ground. It had always been my pattern to clean up after Sam myself. It was so much easier than reminding him to do it over and over, and then having to stand over him until he finished the job. I wished I had started this process earlier. Wished I didn’t have to undo the damage already done.
“Come on, Mom, I’m tired too. I went swimming and rode my bike all day. I just wanna relax and play my game. Can’t I clean it up tomorrow?”
I crossed my arms in front of me, knowing it would take me about thirty seconds to scoop the damn Legos into the bin.
He took his sweet time, dragging his body across the table and sloppily scooping two or three pieces at a time into the bin. I hovered above him, arms still crossed. It took every ounce of strength to stop myself from sweeping my arm across the table to end it all at once. But I knew this little performance was for me. He was taking his time to torture me and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing that it was working.
“I’m going to find your dad and Jack, and when I get back, I want every last Lego to be in that bin.”
Walking down the hall toward the room Jack and Sam shared, because it was the only one with a light on, I couldn’t help but notice all the smudges on the walls. Black scuff marks near the bottom, greasy handprints right at the almost eight-year-old and almost two-year-old heights, orange and red crayon marks. It wasn’t just that we didn’t have the money to re-paint, it was also that there was no point. The smudges would return shortly after anyway, for years to come.
I found Rick struggling to put Jack’s Bob the Builder pajamas on. Jack was on his back on his toddler bed kicking his legs in the air and laughing hysterically. Rick turned to acknowledge my presence with a half smile, still trying to pin Jack’s legs down so he could get the little feeties of the pajamas over his toes.
I put my face right over Jack’s and he laughed harder.
“You left the stove on again,” Rick said in a flat voice, without looking at me.
A contrite sigh was the only apology I could muster. We had been over it so many times already. It frustrated me too, but I didn’t know how to correct this flaw of mine.
Rick almost had control of Jack’s legs until he started making circles with them in a bicycling motion.
“I know how to get you to stop. I know what you need,” I said, face to face with him again. More laughter.
“No, Mama! No, Mama!”
I spoke to Rick but kept my eyes on Jack.
“This little guy needs a tummy tickle to get him to stop kicking his legs!”
I wiggled my fingers like spiders right above his face to torment him first. He shook his head back and forth, unable to suppress an ear to ear grin, kicking his legs furiously.
“No, Mama! No, Mama!”
Quick and easy results, as always. I turned to Rick, proud of myself for saving him, but his facial expression didn’t seem appreciative at all.
“You could have just told me to do that.”
Jack popped off the bed and ran into the living room. I followed to watch him sit right down next to Sam in front of the TV and grab the fake steering wheel controller from his hands.
“Stop it, Jack! I told you, that one over there is yours!”
Settling for the broken controller, Jack pretended to be playing with his big brother, making his version of rumbling car noises. I looked over at the dining room table to see that all the Lego pieces were back in the bin, except one. As I moved closer, I could see that it was a Darth Vader head. I picked it up, looked at Sam, and decided to choose my battles, tossing it into the bin.
Rick followed me as I headed back to the kids’ room to return the Legos to their home on a high shelf. I turned to face him and knew what was coming. It was the same every time.
“So, how was your session? What’d you talk about?”
I wanted to believe he sincerely cared and was interested in how I felt, what I was working on. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more a question of the return on our investment. He had his weekly appointments alone. I had my weekly appointments alone. We had our weekly appointments together. Quite an investment. With our insurance only paying sixty percent, and my pay cut and furlough days at the university because of the budget crisis, the measly amount I brought in didn’t help much. And after all, I had caused the whole mess, hadn’t I? So, I sure as hell better be working hard to fix it.
I knew I should have taken a long breath and counted to three before speaking, as Carly had taught me, but I didn’t. I really, really should have.
“I don’t know! I don’t know how it’s going. Sometimes it seems pointless. You wanna know what we’ve been doing for the last two sessions? Planning the exact words to tell you something that I’m afraid to tell you. I’m a coward. I teach communication but I can’t figure out how to talk to my husband of almost ten years without crafting every syllable with a therapist we pay with money we don’t have. It’s pathetic.”
Now it was even more critical to take that deep breath and count to three. Again, I didn’t.
“So here it is… I need to just get it out already…”
I turned away from him and kept my eyes on the row of Mr. Moose books on the bright green bookshelf.
“Okay, so I’m supposed to tell you that I don’t like the way you kiss. It’s too forceful. I know. It’s ridiculous. I cheated on you. You’re trying to forgive me. And now I have the nerve to come and talk to you about how I want you to kiss me differently. I should keep my mouth shut and feel grateful that you’re finally kissing me again, right? But instead my therapist tells me I need to tell you how much you suck at it! Well… I wasn’t supposed to say it like that. We had it all worked out. I was going to say it in a loving, non-threatening way with a bunch of bullshit about how we’ll both benefit from deeper intimacy and how important slow, gentle kissing is for women. But now I fucked up again, as always.”