In with the day’s mail were the usual bills, coupons… the contract for the new bathroom, and… what have we here? A letter addressed to her husband. Not unusual, David received a lot of mail; after all, he was an important man. The charming, handsome fellow Camille had married was founder and editor of the prestigious Parness Review. Mentor of many, he made no bones about discouraging those he thought hadn’t the talent or the resolve to become published writers. “A story has its own truth. Making readers believe that truth is a writer’s job. Take from your lives then make it up,” he would tell his university students who clamored for his courses. “Writers Are Liars.” And his students would laugh.
She had bounced around from job to job till landing in the English office. She liked it there, the intellectual atmosphere of books, of people thinking and writing important things. She did her work and asked for more, was offered an increase in pay and responsibility. Then she met David—his knowledge, his worldliness. She kept track of his speaking engagements, meetings with his publisher (a new book was due out), their many social commitments, gallery openings and what-have-yous in the art and entertainment world. It made her head spin, the life he offered her—and think twice about the promotion. She didn’t know if she could handle the upgrade and David, so she stuck with the job she had; it was safer that way.
Married 15 years there were no children. She couldn’t have, and adopting was not in the cards. “I want our child, not someone else’s!” he’d said. And because she was sometimes lazy about her own wants and intentions and because he was so sure of himself, it was just the two of them.
She studied the envelope; the handwriting listed left a bit, as if trying for purchase. The return address told her it had come from out west. She palmed it; the missive had some heft. More than one page, she thought. Curious, she flipped the envelope front to back, back to front, as if its contents might reveal themselves. She held it to the light.
“What have you there?”
“Oh!” she blurted when David surprised her from behind.
“Take it,” she said turning. She pushed the letter at him as if it burned her fingers.
“Addressed to me.” He looked at her in what she took as disapproval.
He took off his jacket, hung it in the closet—methodical about all he did, he kept to his routine—washed his hands. Back in the study he ran his forefinger under the flap and began to read. A photo dropped to the floor. “Don’t touch it!” he snapped, eyes glued to the letter when Camille made to retrieve it.
All color drained from his face. He slumped in his chair staring into the middle distance as if at a scene playing out, from which he could not turn away. Camille wished he would speak; the terrible silence made her head throb. Up from his chair he staggered to the kitchen, she, close behind. He opened a cabinet, took out a glass, went for the ice cubes, the Dewars. He poured, handed her the bottle. “I think you’re going to need this.”
She flicked her hand, no. “Tell me, for heaven’s sake! Is it the letter? What’s in the letter?!”
He leaned against the counter, closed his eyes and took a long swallow. “It seems I’m a father. A grandfather in fact; the whole caboodle. I have a son. He wants to meet me. He’s coming to New York.”
It took her a minute to understand, to separate herself from the child that was David’s but not hers. David, a father? How could that be?! I couldn’t conceive. Camille’s desire to have a child was long gone, but anger and inadequacy boiled up in her toward the woman who had given David what she could not.
“I’ll be ruined if this gets out,” he said.
Ruined if this gets out. Just like him, always putting himself first, and Camille, blindsided by this… this news, alive as if it had breath and muscles exploding out of an envelope, entering her home, blowing her life to pieces—what about her ruin?
“Who?!” she demanded. “When?”
“You remember The Blue Robe?” he said.
In his twenties David had penned a story, the story, about a young man and an older woman that launched his writing career. Reviewers gushed: “Daring and introspective,” “Mature beyond his years,” “We have not heard the last of David Parness.”
“Your breakout story. The teen has an affair with his friend’s sister. So it was true then.”
He pressed his lips together as if to keep the words from escaping. “Partly.”
“Which part?” She eyed him curiously. Something wasn’t right here. All steel now, she moved toward him.
He backed against the worktop, hands flipped up as if she had pulled a gun. “It wasn’t an actual affair, it was a…”
“Meaningless one-nighter?” Standard for him back in the day when pretty undergrads couldn’t keep their hands off him, and he off them. Protocol for Camille was not to hear the rumors, not to see the phone numbers crumpled in the trash. The smell of sex on him after a night of counseling (ha!) students. But a combination of deny, accept and adapt, and his promises got her through it. But a child from one of his flings? How was she to deal with that?
“I haven’t been involved with anyone for years.” A little sulk as if he had been wronged. “And that’s not how it was: it…” His voice, normally quiet and well modulated, rose and cut off sharply.
“How was it then!? Tell me! I’m all ears.” But he, so reticent to go on, she, so agitated, steamed ahead. “Your friend’s sister was older. You two were alone in the house. Your father had recently died. In your arms, as I remember.” His passing was not in the story, and David, only seventeen, near hysterical with fright and shock, huffed into his father’s mouth, frantic, shaking him, trying to bring him to. “She was just out of the shower. In a robe. You felt guilty. Not about her. At least you didn’t say so in the story. About your father. You could have done more. Should have done more, though God knows what; he was a sick man. You started to cry. She comforted you. One thing led to another. She…”
“It wasn’t his sister.”
“Who then, a maid? Did they have a maid?” she said with insinuation.
Valentina from Brazil had been Camille and David’s maid. He was teaching her English. You bet he was! Conjugating in the laundry room when Camille walked in on them. Also back in the day, but his betrayal and the hurt felt new again.
“Not a maid,” he said.
“Who then?!” A chill crept up her spine, as if warning her brain what was coming. She both wanted and didn’t want to know.
She held to the table for fear her legs would give. To turn, even to blink would be too much. She forgot how to breathe. It took a moment for a thought to gather. This is not happening. I heard wrong. “Say again?” she managed when she could speak.
“It was his mother I slept with,” he croaked.
Her eyes ached. Her head spun. Her brain, which still could not process what he was telling her, envisioned the woman in her robe, and he fully clothed, napping chastely. But the look on his face told her that magical thinking would not make this go away.
“I think it’s enough on the matter for one day; I’d like to lie down,” he said with his usual authority. He made to leave the kitchen.
“One day?! It’s enough for a lifetime! But I want to hear it. Now!” The force with which she said it surprised her and shocked David. He stayed put.
“What kind of woman has sex with her son’s friend?” Camille couldn’t calm herself down. “Was she some kind of sicko?”
“She sang in a band… Vivian,” he said, recalling the woman, “beautiful in a worn out sort of way. Maybe it was the late nights… going through a divorce… worried about her looks, who she’d find. It… it just happened.”
“Out of the air! Like magic!” she said. “You can do better than that, David, man of words that you are. How did you put it in the story?” She raised up a finger. “Don’t move, I’ll get it.” She ran to the den, to the shelves that housed his work, pulled the book. Back in the kitchen she ruffled the pages. “The Robe,” she read with mock gravitas. She cleared her throat in pseudo theatrical style. “’Time fell away; there were no floors, no walls to the room we were in. There was only the desperate need of our union, to heal and be whole again, to breathe a new beginning. The sweet rapture of it…’ Sweet rapture…” she repeated. “Lovely. You do know how to tell it, David, I’ll say that for you.”
“Me?” she said, as if he had asked. “I don’t remember my first time as sweet rapture, or sweet anything for that matter. It was rushed and fumbled and it hurt and he didn’t… but once we got the hang of it…” she said as if relating an encounter in the supermarket that day. But he did not look at all cheered by her tale. “Is this making you uncomfortable, David? You look like you’re going to be sick hearing about my sex life before we met. I did have one, you know. And after we were married? Good for the goose, good for the gander?” David went green. “A little fling for Camille in the laundry room? What better place to get between the sheets with Manuel.”
“Manuel?” His voice with a little jerk. “The gardener?!”
“Did you think I took all your cheating like some ninny without striking back?” (She did, but he didn’t have to know that.) You’re doing great, Camille. You should have been a writer; you’re thinking like one. Make it up, like David tells his students. It’s true if your readers think it is. “A little Latin blood is good for what ails a woman whose husband can’t keep it in his pants. But let’s get back to Vivian. After your magical moment, then what?”
David took a minute to compose himself; after her disclosure he seemed to need it. When he spoke his voice was distant, as if his mind had questions of its own. “That was it. That one time. I knew I shouldn’t see her again, and she must have known it too. We moved away soon after my father died. My mother wanted a fresh start. I lost touch with my friend,” then “You and Manuel?” his voice off pitch.
He’s worried, she thought, and felt a sudden shift, a change in balance that propped the air around her. ”That’s in the past,” she said, waved the words away. So this is what it’s like to be David, to be in charge, to wrap up into a neat little ball whatever hurtful things he did to her, and throw it back in his face. It felt good, yet somehow not. Like a power misused. But she went with it, this assurance she didn’t know she had that could put the worry in David’s face, and rock the pedestal she had placed him on. “Let’s have a look at the letter.” She reached out her hand.
He had folded and folded it upon itself shrinking its size, run the creases between thumb and forefinger as if to seal the letter and keep its secrets. She opened it, a stiffening in her shoulders and upper body—in spite of her new bravado, she was uneasy. What would the letter reveal about David, about his son? What, if anything would it demand of her? She read.
Robert played clarinet. Musical, like his mom, she thought. Taught band in a high school. Won competitions. Must be good. Mentored students. Like his dad. And the grandson, 18, interested in writing. Silently she put out her arm toward David, wiggled her fingers. He placed the photo in her open palm. Nice warm smile, must be the mom’s. The strong jaw was David’s, but the arms loose on Robert’s lap and the generally easygoing manner, dressed as he was in jeans, was definitely not David.
She looked up at her husband, handed back the still creased letter, the photo resting on top. “Impressive.”
David worked his mouth as if he had tasted something unpleasant. “How so?” He set them next to the Dewars.
“He’s an accomplished musician! He teaches! His son, your grandson, wants to be a writer. You have things in common. That’s how so!”
“Barely,” David said, as if granting a passing grade on a student’s lame performance.
“I’m going to have to think this through. What did you make for dinner? I hope it’s not fish. I had salmon for lunch.”
Pure David that was. Take the problem off topic when he’d had enough of it; decide when he was ready and that would be that. But far as Camille was concerned that was not that at all. That was on the table, and he would eat it, like it or not.
“What is there to think through? This is your son! You made him. Aren’t you even curious to see what you created? Or is Robert not the son you envisioned?” Saying his name made him flesh and blood, not some abstract idea David could dismiss. “Maybe a symphony conductor or professor of music would suit you more than a high school band teacher.” She had never challenged him this way, never took it upon herself to question his judgement. But she held her ground. Held it as if the very earth were in her arms. “Or is it too inconvenient to have the messy past of the great David Parness dragged up?”
“Is there anything else?” He drummed his fingers on the counter.
“Yes! You could stop doing that. It’s very annoying.”
“It hasn’t bothered you before,” he said from on high.
“Well, it’s bothering me now!” she howled, slammed around the kitchen opening and closing the cabinets, not knowing what she was looking for. “Excuse me,” she sniped, wanting him to move aside.
“What’s gotten into you, Camille? The way you’re acting today. It’s so unlike you.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. I’m leaving,” She had to get out of there. Out of the letter, out of David; she didn’t know which of the two was upsetting her more.
“Leaving?! Me?!” He went pale.
She hadn’t intended to leave him, but his mention of it somehow urged her to the edge of the marriage, as if she might leap off it into something new and different. But what?! She liked being Camille Parness, liked the life she had. She’d like it better though if her wants and intentions carried a little more weight in that life. They could missy, if you would open your mouth and let them be known before they came out as a braying, frustrated, shriek. Was David a mind reader? Maybe her problem with David was Camille. What play they would see, where they would eat after, the bathroom renovation for another. She had left the decision making to him. That laziness of her own convictions had given him the upper hand and had caused her to resent him so. She would have to take back some of that hand.
“I’m not leaving you, David. At least not at the moment.” Try that on for size, professor. I’m leaving the house. I’m going out for a while.”
“Oh,” he said with more confidence. “What about dinner then?”
“You know where the stove is. And another thing…” she said with ideas she didn’t know she had. “I’d rather a nice soft blue for the bathroom instead of that blah beige. And the sink; I’d like to go with one of the basin styles that sit on top of the vanity; it’s more the look now.”
“But it’s all decided.” You decided. “It’s in the contract,” he said.
Calm as ice, “Contracts can be changed,” she said, and shut the door behind her with a decisive click.
Author of the novels 'Lily Steps Out' and 'Feminine Products', and the short story collection 'Alterations', Rita Plush is the book reviewer for Fire Island News. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Kveller, Jewish Week, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. She teaches memoir at the Fire Island School and Queensborough Community College.