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Authors: Kate Hilton

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“Good luck,” I say. “I love you.”

There is a moment of silence and I hear that Jesse has stopped typing. “I love you, too,” he says distractedly. “Oh, Soph, Anya is waving me back. I've got to go. See you later.” And he's off.

I sit at the breakfast bar in the home that we have bought and renovated together and look at the pink message slip on the counter, thinking,
This is what no one tells you about marriage
. No one tells you that you will feel angry and disappointed and lonely; no one tells you that you will have to work so hard to be good to each other. No one tells you that you will wonder whether it is worth it.

Marriage is a trade-off, but not the one you think. When you get married, you think you are trading freedom for certainty, and a past of failed love affairs for a future in which your romantic hopes are realized. There is a heady sense of emancipation that comes with the
knowledge that you will never again look at your spouse and ask: Does he like me back? Does he want to kiss me? Do we belong together? When Jesse proposed to me, it was the definitive answer to all of these questions, and I almost wept with relief.

And then, as time marches on, you realize that in the day-to-day-ness of your married life together, in your haste to escape from the insecurity of your pre-married existence, something essential has been lost. The very uncertainty that made you sick with anxiety also fueled your desire. Think about the most romantic moment of your life and you'll see what I mean. Eyes meeting across a room, an unexpected touch that crackled like electricity on your skin, a first kiss under a streetlight in the snow, your beloved getting down on one knee: the moment was about expectation, the anticipation of a future where the relationship moved forward and deepened. Marriage, even a great marriage, is decidedly lacking in anticipation. There aren't a lot of surprises, and let's face it, surprises in marriage are rarely good ones. Announcements such as “I've discovered that I really like men/my twenty-five-year-old secretary,” or “I've decided that instead of working I want to build giant art installations out of car parts in our backyard,” are not in the standard happily-ever-after package.

And then you realize something even more disappointing. Marriage doesn't change either one of you. It changes your outward behavior, because you are—at least ostensibly—committed to the social norms associated with the institution: fidelity, for most, but also a whole host of more mundane acts that fall into the category of making an effort, like contributing to the family income, and treating each other with respect, and being nice to your husband's loathsome business partner. But all of your essential insecurities and desires eventually surface over time, like landmines in the desert.

I believe in marriage. I believe that two good people can be happy together for a lifetime. It's the only thing even close to a religion that I have, and I cling to it with almost messianic zeal. But it is a belief system that makes unreasonable demands on its adherents, all of us sacrificing to the bone for a reward that may or may not come at the end of
our days, and all of us steadfastly refusing to see the mounting evidence that long-term happy marriages, if they exist at all, are pretty hard to come by. We all want to think that miracles are possible. Otherwise, marriage is just a lot of hard work.

The front door opens and snaps me out of my reverie. It's Jamie, home from school with the thirteen-year-old neighbor who picks him up from aftercare every day. I pay her extra to give him a snack and stay with him until I get home. By now she's probably saved enough to pay for her college tuition.

“Mommy!” Jamie lights up to find me here, races over, and throws himself into my arms with a force that nearly bowls me over.

“Hi, sweetie,” I say, and I kiss his curly head and know that this is the best moment I've had all day.

“I have a letter for you, Mommy,” he says, opening his backpack and presenting me with an envelope. I open it, and find a stern missive from Kelly Robinson, the Parent Council chair, advising me in bold type that I'm shirking my duty to provide the recommended number of volunteer hours at the school. Watkins Elementary is a
community school
, where
parent engagement
is a
critical resource
to provide children with the
strongest possible education in the early years
, Kelly writes, and according to her records, I haven't volunteered for
a single event all year
. Ignoring her request to contact her
at my earliest convenience
, I crumple the note and throw it in the garbage.

“What do you want for dinner, baby?” I ask.

He thinks for a bit. “Can we order pizza?” he asks.

I can see that he doesn't really think I'll say yes, but I want him to believe in miracles for a little longer, so I say, “Sure.”

“Awesome!” He punches his fist in the air, an expression of wonderment on his face.

“Where did you learn that?” I ask, miming his fist pump.

“Dad does it when we watch the hockey game,” he says, and I remind myself that Jesse is a great father while I pick up the phone and call for dinner.

“How was school today?” I ask.

“OK,” he says. “We did science. Oscar had a time-out.”

“How come?”

“Mrs. Carron told him to take turns with Lily and he said no.”

It strikes me, not for the first time, how few of the qualities that we consider necessary for survival—sharing, putting the interests of others ahead of your own, controlling your emotions—are innate. Our parents try, our teachers try, and we, as adults, try to reinforce these learned behaviors in ourselves, but fundamentally, we would rather throw our crayons on the floor than share them. No wonder marriage is so hard.

Jamie and I hang out at the breakfast bar, waiting for our pizza. He has some juice and I have some wine (because it's been a long day, and it's true that wine has a lot of calories, but you really have to do the analysis of whether it's more important to be skinny or to be sane, and anyway, it's sensible to hold something in reserve for your New Year's resolution), and he draws me a picture of Anakin Skywalker battling an army of droids.

It's not until Jamie says, “What's Scotty watching?” that I realize the theme song from the menu screen is playing over and over again, and if the video is over and Scotty isn't shouting for me to fix it, it can only mean one thing. I groan and peer into the den, where I see Scotty fast asleep on the couch, two hours before his bedtime. With two of my essential parenting principles in conflict, I am torn between Never Wake a Sleeping Child and Mess with Bedtime at Your Peril; but Scotty needs the rest, and I'm not keen on the prospect of spending two hours with a fussy three-year-old who would rather be sleeping. I carry Scotty upstairs, and he barely moves as I change him into pajamas and roll his sweaty little head onto the pillow. I sit on the edge of his bed for a minute or two, listening to his congested snorts and snuffles in the dark, and my chest aches with the fierceness of my love for him. When Jamie was born, I realized that children are to their parents as Kryptonite is to Superman—they are the only thing in the world with the power to destroy us utterly, and their presence leaves us in a state of constant and unrelenting vulnerability. But by the time we realize it, we're committed forever.

The doorbell rings and I rush downstairs to claim the pizza. “Do you want to watch
Clone Wars
?” I ask Jamie.

“Can we eat in the TV room?” he asks, as if hardly daring to imagine that an ordinary weeknight could offer such marvels.

“Absolutely,” I say, and as we snuggle on the couch, eat our supper, and watch the Jedi restore peace to the universe, I think,
Just under the wire, it turned into a good day after all.

CHAPTER FOUR

august 1994

“It's Paris,” says Zoe. “I'm going.”

It's a steamy Saturday night in August and we're walking to a party. We're down to a handful of weekends before classes start, our last September as the graduating class of 1995. It's muggy and airless, and I'm deeply regretting my choice of footwear. I've got my hair up in a scrunchie and am draped in a loose, sleeveless black peasant dress, but they are doing little to compensate for the fact that my feet are slippery with sweat inside my Doc Martens.

I've been planning this conversation for a few days now, but it's not going the way I thought it would. “I can't afford the apartment without you,” I say.

“That's why I've been telling you since May to make other plans,” says Zoe. “I'm sorry, Sophie. I know how much you hate the idea of moving, but I'm going to Paris.”

I try one last time. “Are you sure you want to miss your last year on campus? It's the best one. You can take all these great seminar courses . . .” I trail off as Zoe starts laughing.

“That's you, Soph, not me,” she says. “With my GPA, it's a miracle I got permission to do the exchange program at all. It's happening.” She
throws an arm around my shoulder. “It's not the end of the world,” she says. “You can come and visit me next summer. And I'll help you find a place. I'm going to ask a few people tonight.”

“I don't want to live with a bunch of strangers,” I say.

“Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet,” says Zoe, quoting one of my mother's notorious aphorisms. I open my mouth, stick my finger in, and make a gagging sound. “No need to be dramatic,” says Zoe. “We'll find you something great. I promise. Now stop pouting and try to have some fun tonight. Will's parties are legendary.”

“Is he on your hit list?” I ask. It's clear that someone is; Zoe is wearing a baby-sized black tee with the words DO YOU WANT ME TO SEDUCE YOU? emblazoned across the midriff. It's supposed to be ironic, but it works like a charm. It reminds me that Zoe isn't an entirely satisfactory roommate; she rarely comes home alone on the weekend, if she comes home at all. But I've adjusted to her, and it's a small price to share, however peripherally, in her sparkle. She gets me out of the house and out of my head.

“Oh, no,” she says. “I fooled around with him in high school, lucky me; it was like getting vaccinated. He's trouble. I've got my eye on a couple of his engineering buddies.”

“Tell me again who Will is.” Zoe has a gigantic social circle: high school friends, camp friends, skiing friends, family friends. It's dizzying to try to keep track of them all. I've never moved in packs; I'm more curatorial in my approach to collecting friends. And if I'm honest, I've never felt comfortable in Zoe's pack. I recognize their ilk from my waitress days at the golf club near my parents' house up in cottage country—all streaked hair and diamond studs and high-quality fake IDs. Having collected Zoe, I try to hold up my end among the various PSR&Bs (Pretty, Skinny, Rich, and Blonds) in her orbit, but I still feel like I'm supposed to be bringing them cheeseburgers and Tom Collins cocktails.

The first time I met Zoe was in my college dorm, in the first week of school. I was in my room, but with the door open, which was a compromise with my shy self: I wouldn't venture forth into potentially awkward human contact, but would, by way of the open door, indicate
basic sociability. No one had taken up my admittedly obscure invitation to come in and befriend me until Zoe showed up. I had noticed her, of course; she was absolutely gorgeous and seemed to have acquired an entourage in the short time since she had arrived.

“Are you squeamish?” she asked.

“No.”

“Great. Then you can help me.” She came in and held out her hand. “I'm Zoe Hennessy.”

“Sophie Whelan.”

Zoe held out a diamond stud. “My piercing closed up.” She laughed at the expression on my face. “Don't worry—the one in my ear. Can you push this through?”

I was fairly sick with loneliness by this point and prepared to take friendship in whatever form it was offered. “Sure,” I said. “Have a seat.”

Zoe sat down and I got to work. She barely winced. “Hey,” she said, pointing to the
Thelma & Louise
poster on my wall. “My English teacher liked that movie too. We had to write an essay on female empowerment. I always wondered: am I the only one who noticed that they drive off a fucking
cliff
at the end? What's empowering about that? Ouch.”

“Sorry. But it's in. You're done.”

“Awesome,” she said, standing up. “I knew the girl in black would know how to do a piercing.”

“The girl in black?”

“Yeah. You're the mysterious, artsy one on the floor. Aren't you?”

“I don't know,” I said, too surprised to be anything other than honest. I'd always wanted to be mysterious and artsy, and I had chosen my back-to-school wardrobe accordingly with a heavy emphasis on long black skirts, black flowing blouses, and dangling earrings. If my new floor-mates found me mysterious, though, it was more likely because I was scared to come out of my room.

“You are,” she said, definitively, and I felt a rush of gratitude that I'd been given an identity in this strange new world. “What are you doing right now?”

“Nothing. Just hanging out,” I said, by which I meant that I planned to spend the evening alone, listening to the Indigo Girls and hoping that someone would come by to invite me to do something more interesting.

“I'm going to a party at the res next door. Do you want to come?”

It was a lifeline, and I grabbed on with both hands. Then at the end of first year, she astonished me, and everyone who knew either of us, by inviting me to share an apartment with her. Three years of university had sparked countless awakenings of the intellectual, political, and even sexual variety, none of which were due to Zoe, but she was responsible for virtually all of the fun.

“I did tell you this,” says Zoe with a touch of exasperation. Zoe thinks I don't make enough of an effort to be social, which is why I am usually single. “Will Shannon. Just moved back to town after doing his undergrad in political science at Duke. Very smart. Rower. Starting law school in September. Throws good parties, which you always miss because you go home for Christmas and summer holidays.”

We turn onto Abernathy Road, and Zoe stops outside an enormous redbrick mansion. “He lives here?” I ask. “Is it his parents' house?”

“No,” says Zoe. “His parents are uptown. I'm sure this was the address, though.” And she climbs the stairs and rings the bell.

When the door opens, it's obvious we're in the right place. The main floor is packed, the music is blaring, and it's incredibly hot. “Push through to the kitchen,” yells Zoe, and we head for the back of the house. Above the din, I hear her calling Will's name, and by the time I hit a clearing in the crowd, I see her being lifted onto the kitchen counter. “Beer me, baby,” she says, and the boy with his hands around her waist reaches below the counter and comes up with an icy bottle.

Rower, indeed
, I think. He's tall, with ridiculously broad shoulders and long muscular arms that make the word
rower
shorthand for
physical perfection
. And then there's the dark hair set off by gray-blue eyes and a white T-shirt that fits in all the right places. I laugh out loud, and both of them turn toward me. They make a striking couple. “Sophie,” Zoe calls, waving me over. “I want you to meet Will. Will, this is my roommate, Sophie.”

“Hey, Sophie,” he says. “Having fun?”

“We just got here,” I say, and Zoe grimaces. “Amazing house,” I say, trying again. “Is it a rental?”

“Not exactly,” he says. “My great-aunt owns it. She lives on the third floor and I'm living on the second floor with a buddy of mine.” He turns to Zoe. “Do you know A.J.?”

“Of course,” says Zoe. “I saw him at Heidi's last week.” Zoe turns to me, and says, meaningfully, “A.J.'s an engineer.”

“I heard you're going to Paris,” says Will. “When are you leaving?”

“In three weeks,” says Zoe. “And I promised Sophie I'd find her a new place to live or a new roommate. Do you know anyone who's looking?”

“I might,” he says. “Let me think about it. Sophie, do you want a drink?”

“Please,” I say.

“Is A.J. here?” asks Zoe.

“I think all the engineers are in the backyard,” says Will.

“I'm going to go and say hi,” says Zoe, slipping off the counter. “Back in a bit.”

“Careful back there,” says Will. “You know engineers. They could be slaughtering a goat or climbing a greased pole. I take no responsibility.”

“I've got it covered,” says Zoe, and heads to the back, while Will hands me a beer. Another boy enters the kitchen from the living room, and Will shifts a few feet to let him past as he opens the fridge. Will gestures toward the backyard and shrugs. “She'll be back,” he says. “Let that be a lesson to you. I'm totally unreliable.”

I don't get the joke and shoot him a quizzical look.

“This is A.J.,” he says, by way of explanation, and we share a smile.

“Hey,” says A.J., turning. I can sort of see why Zoe likes him. He's shorter and more compact than Will, but he's attractive in a generic way. He has nice brown eyes with long dark lashes, which might be soulful on someone else, but he's shaved his head and is wearing a loose basketball tank that screams
jock
.

“This is Zoe's roommate,” says Will.

I hold out my hand. “Sophie,” I say.

“Oh, right.” A.J. nods. “I've heard of you. You're the wingman.”

“I'm sorry?”

“Zoe's wingman.” I shake my head. “You're the one who goes with her to parties, hangs out with her while she decides who she wants to go after, chats up the guys she doesn't want.”

I'm mortified. I always suspected that Zoe's high school friends thought of me as a curiosity; now I see that they think I'm a loser. “It's really not like that,” I say. God, engineers are such assholes.

“I didn't mean to offend you,” he says.

“It takes more than that,” I say, hoping that I sound cutting.

Will steps in. “Zoe's going to Paris and Sophie needs a new place,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“What do you think?” asks Will. I'm having trouble following this exchange, but that's nothing unusual. I can never figure out how boys become friends when this is what qualifies as meaningful conversation. The secret must have something to do with sports.

“It's your call, man,” says A.J. He looks at me uncertainly. “Are you sure I didn't upset you?”

“Sure,” I say.

He runs his hands over his head, exasperated. “OK,” he says, finally. “See you around.” And he picks his beer up off the counter and heads for the backyard.

“He's a good guy,” says Will.

“I'm sure he is,” I say, as neutrally as possible. Honestly, could I be more socially inept around Zoe's friends? It's not as though I don't have my own posse down at the student newspaper. My flight instinct is kicking in, and I resolve to give Zoe fifteen minutes to finish her business in the backyard before I start heading for the exit.

“You write for the student newspaper, right?” Will asks.

“You read it?” I'm surprised. Will doesn't seem like a guy who Cares About Issues, unlike my brethren at the paper.

“Not often,” he says. “Just trying to figure out what you do for fun.”

“Normally on a Saturday night I'd go downtown to search for social
injustice and protest against it,” I say. “But it was Zoe's turn to choose.” Will smiles, and I continue: “Look, Will, it's really nice of you to entertain me, but you should feel free to circulate. I'm fine, honestly.”

“So what does offend you?” he asks. “Just out of curiosity.”

“One thing above all others,” I tell him.

“More than tuition increases?”

I nod solemnly. “More than frats, even.”

“More than frats? What could be more offensive than frats?” Will's grin widens.

“Engineers,” I say, and both of us burst into laughter.

“There's someone I want you to meet,” says Will. “Come on upstairs for a minute.” He crosses over to the far side of the kitchen and opens what appears to be a closet door. “After you,” he says. I peer in and see a steep, narrow staircase.

I climb up, my thudding footsteps echoing in the stuffy air. I pause on the little landing for the second floor. “Keep going,” says Will. On the third floor he stops, reaches past me, and knocks on a door, and I absorb his scent of soap and sweat, cotton and shaving cream: pure, unadulterated male. Will turns the handle and pushes the door open.

BOOK: The Hole in the Middle
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