Read an Excerpt
Six Weeks Earlier
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
I heard him before I saw him. He arrived in the middle of a hot, balmy morning, a week ago today, the low rumble of his 1967 Chevy pickup snaking around the block as I was bent over, twisting the rusty nozzle on the garden hose. Tepid water sputtered out of the warm rubber and oozed around my flip-flop-clad feet as he slowed his truck and rounded the bend in front of my house. Did he wink at me? I'm still not sure, but a small grin crept across his face and he gave me the quickest of nods.
Even in this brief exchange, I could feel the fever of attraction. My neck flushed and my hand shot up of its own accord, waving maniacally at him.
I could tell he was dead handsome through the windshield, the glaring morning sunlight catching blond streaks in his short sandy hair. His toned lean arm slung across the blue steering wheel. His honey-kissed skin and that perfect mouth I could already imagine pressing my lips to.
After the truck coasted up the hill and out of sight, I doused the row of tropical plants I'd recently planted-pumpkin-colored cannas, a stand of banana trees, and a bed of waxy elephant's ears-my pulse thrumming from this brush with him.
This had been the first task I'd thrown myself into upon moving back to Cedartown eight months ago: ripping out the generic, predictably cheesy flower beds tended to by the landscapers-geraniums and petunias-in an effort to make the yard as lush and verdant as possible.
And as opposite as possible from the yard of my failed marriage: the arid xeriscaped rock lawn with jagged succulents that rimmed our modern two-story farmhouse just south of downtown in Austin. Fucking Felix with his fucking minimalism.
I've likewise tried to eradicate all signs of Felix from inside the house. Or as much as my son, Kasey, can bear. I left behind all of Felix's hard-edged furniture but kept his Danish sideboard and matching table made of teak. Because those were two pieces of his I genuinely liked, and also, because I knew he adored those more than anything else. And after what he had done to me, I had to jab back at his heart a little. Make him bleed a bit.
In the house, on the mantel, there's a lone picture of Felix holding two-year-old Kasey. Snapped thirteen years ago. Long before the string of affairs. At least that's what I tell myself-I don't know what to really believe anymore-and long before Felix's descent into his full-blown midlife crisis. In the photo, a rough beard frames his strong jaw and he's flashing a bright smile. A father beaming at his dumpling-faced toddler. Kasey is bundled in a red parka, his golden locks springing from beneath a hand-knitted toboggan.
When I unpacked the photo from the tissue paper, my intention was to put it on Kasey's dresser, but it's always been on our mantel and Kasey lifted it from me and parked it there. I wasn't in a position to argue with him-he's been snippy with me ever since the divorce, as if his father's philandering was somehow my fault-so I have to pass by Felix every time I walk through the living room. But I've already managed to autoblock him each time I glimpse it, focusing instead on Kasey's crimped face, captured midgiggle.
At least my bedroom is one hundred percent Felix-free. No more stacks of serious, severe books of music criticism and design magazines, arranged to disguise poorly hidden issues of Playboy.
Now my weathered wooden nightstand holds my ever-growing collection of self-help books: Pema Chšdršn's When Things Fall Apart; Melody Beattie's Codependent No More; a few of BrenŽ Brown's books, which I have yet to crack; and various yoga/meditation books.
I've recently taken to reading a book of mantras just before I doze off at night:
I am already complete, whole, and loved.
The universe provides.
I attract abundance.
Love surrounds us in each moment of every day.
My thoughts become my reality; think positive ones.
And so forth. I feel slightly ridiculous chanting these out loud to myself while I'm out in the yard gardening; I realize that most people would cringe if they heard me, but I swear they're already starting to help just a tiny bit.
The yard work is helping, too. And not just with my sanity. Now that my parents don't have to pay for the landscaping service, they apply the savings to the monthly stipend they give me to keep me and Kasey afloat. Between that and living in their rental (my childhood home) rent-free, we just about manage to scrape by each month. Of course, there's alimony and child support, but Felix's lawyer friend managed to ensure the settlement was as favorable to Felix as possible. And seeing how I haven't worked since Kasey was born, it's not as though I have any income of my own to contribute to things, which is something I need to figure out.
So each morning, I work for an hour or so in the yard, tearing out weeds, plunging my hands into the ruddy clay earth, and sizing up the jade-colored carpet of Saint Augustine grass to see where I might lay more beds for tropicals and possibly even some herbs.
It's a nice-sized lot shaded by a stand of stately pines that thud their cones to the ground in winter. And it's calming for me to be out there in the early hours, listening to the backdrop sounds of my childhood: the sizzling hiss of cicadas, the drilling of woodpeckers, the gurgling of the neighborhood creek that winds along the back side of our property.
Our small town in northeast Texas may not have the hipness and glossiness of Austin, but it's serene and it's home.
Home. I'm home again. That's another mantra (but one that I made up) that keeps running through my mind while I'm out there tending to the property, as if to solidify the fact that this is my new home and as if to make that fact less surreal.
The morning that Blond Man drove past, however, I cut my work short. As soon as I finished watering the plants, I turned off the faucet and dropped the hose to the ground without even bothering to coil it back around its stand, the tip of it chinking against the concrete drive.
I padded inside and pulled my sweaty hair into a quick ponytail before grabbing my keys and hopping into my white Honda Accord.
I set off in the same direction as Blond Man, taking the long way around my street, Azalea Circle. I live on the far end, near the edge of the forest, and normally I turn left out of the drive and head straight out of the neighborhood. There's never a reason to turn right and circle around the back, past the row of houses that grows more opulent as the street climbs the gentle-sloping hill.
I used to bike this route as a kid and all the homes and families who lived there are imprinted on my mind like photos in an album: the Carters' colonial mansion with its chalk-white columns; the Dickensons' sprawling 1970s ranch with its endless wings; the Wards' elegant contemporary-all glass and blond wood, as if it were built out of the earth itself.
I eased up the incline and I saw his vintage blue truck parked at the curb in front of Dr. Ellingsworth's old estate, the grandest home in all of Eden Place, the pseudoparadisiacal-sounding name of our neighborhood. A shock of adrenaline jolted my chest and I yanked down my sunglasses to help shield my face as I neared the house.
When I was just a little girl, Dr. Ellingsworth was already a widower living in his storybook mansion all alone, his children all grown and living in far-flung cities along the East Coast.
The kids in the neighborhood used to call the Ellingsworth mansion the fairy house, and I for sure imagined little elves and fairies, just out of plain sight, running through the halls and skipping around the rolling backyard. Once, when I went knocking door to door through the neighborhood, selling spices for our elementary school fundraiser, I got to glance inside Dr. Ellingsworth's house as I waited in the foyer for him to fetch his checkbook. The floor was paved with milk-white stone and amber light filtered through the diamond-shaped windows, filling the foyer with a honeyed hue. The house smelled like a church-beeswax and mustiness-and standing on my tiptoes, I peered around a corner and glimpsed a room that looked to be the doctor's library. Floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with leather-bound books, the room laid out with dark wooden furniture. I wanted to take stock of the rest of the place, which was so different from any other house I'd ever stepped foot in. But soon Dr. Ellingsworth appeared with a freshly written check, handing it over to me with a warm smile.
The outside of the mansion is just as enchanting as the inside: pitched rooflines, thatched siding, arched doorways, a quilt of glittering windows in all sorts of odd shapes, and an ivy-covered wooden gate that leads to a pocket side yard.
As I neared the house, my pulse whooshed in my ears when I caught sight of a long white moving truck parked in the long drive. Blond Man was standing in the plush grass, gesturing to the crew of movers before disappearing through the giant mouth of the front door. I pressed on the brake and took stock of the pile of boxes being shuttled inside the house.
My shoulders sagged.
It was obvious he was moving in, but clearly-from the looks of the conveyor belt of furniture streaming from the back of the moving truck-he was most likely soon to be joined by a wife and four kids.
This was seven days ago and I havenÕt caught sight of him since. His truck has been parked in the same spot, and whenever I drive or stroll past and do a quick nonchalant sweep of the windows with my sunglass-clad eyes, the rooms inside look still and uninhabited. Like a stage set awaiting its actors.
I don't know anything about him, really. All I know is that I can't quit thinking about him. I don't even know his name. But I'm hoping to find out more tonight at wine with Kittie and Cynthia.
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Cynthia Nichols's Diary
This is my first official entry. Well, my second, actually, but it's the first in this black leather Moleskine journal.
I started the first one on my laptop, but then got paranoid that Gerald might see it. It's not like he's a snooper or anything, but my laptop is so clutter-free and devoid of files that a new one would jump right out at him if he happened to plop down in front of it to read the Washington Post or check The Wall Street Journal, which he routinely does.
The Moleskine I can stash in my lingerie drawer. God knows he'd never go looking in there.
It's evening, just after eleven o'clock, and he's asleep. I don't know whether or not Tyson is; I've been banned from his room at nighttime ever since he turned fifteen two springs ago. But on nights when I do edge down the hall toward his room-even if it's way past midnight-blue-white light flickers beneath the door, which means he's either watching TV or playing Minecraft or whatever the hell teens are obsessed with these days.
So tonight I'm tucked into the study, my little sanctuary, on the creamy white chaise, a chenille blanket pooling around me. The sky outside is bruised black and a ragged cloud the color of slate scrapes across the moon.
What am I supposed to be writing about? Surely not this mundane stuff, but Dr. Whitaker-Sally Whitaker, my newfound confidante and shrink-told me not to filter my thoughts, just to write everything down. All of it.
This was at our second meeting, last Thursday. Thursdays have become my therapy days, I guess, even though it's just for an hour. But it's something I already look desperately forward to. I found her online and instantly trusted her for some reason. Maybe it's her smart silver bob or her kind eyes, or the fact that she raked up the most positive reviews online, but I phoned her the next morning to make an appointment.
I have never in my life gone to therapy. My parents-if they were still living-would be horrified. You didn't go picking apart your emotions in the White household. Virginia and Frank believed, instead, in bettering yourself with more expensive private lessons. English horseback riding, ballet, etiquette class. All activities that would mold me into a well-rounded housewife instead of the overly sensitive, overly analytical little girl I once was.
And as secretly excited as I am about it, I do feel a prick of shame about going to therapy. Not that Gerald would judge me-easygoing Gerald; it's just that I don't have some giant issue or trauma to recover from. I don't, in fact, know what's wrong with me or if anything actually is. Maybe it's the prospect of turning forty this September, but I'm tired of waking up in the middle of the night with my thoughts racing, my heart rate speeding, and then descending into a sinkhole of depression where I fester until Tyson or Gerald comes home and I'm forced to put on my cheery face.
And I cannot talk to Kittie about it. She's like my parents, never self-reflective or wanting to appear weak. She's all take-charge. She'll listen to my bedroom problems and every shard of gossip I have to share, but she's got no appetite for my navel-gazing.
I'm sure Jen would lend a more helpful ear, but her life is such a shit basket right now that I can't bear to burden her with my own.
I mean, I have a happy marriage. Or at least a stable one. And I do love Gerald; I really do, and I can't imagine being with anyone else. It's just sometimes when I catch sight of him lounging in a chair in his bathrobe, with his perfectly coiffed brown hair that's beginning to gray and immaculately manicured hands, I sigh. At this stage, we're more like roommates or old friends than lovers.
Not that we don't have sex. We do, and quite often, only it's the same routine every single time. His eyes fill with desire. He leads me by the hand to the bedroom, kisses me while caressing my hair. Lays me down on the bed with him on top. Every time. Nibbles on my ear and, afterward, holds me and tells me about his day or how he's feeling. Asks how I'm feeling. During our courtship, I loved this about him. Loved his strong hands stroking my forehead while we bonded. Loved this intimacy, which I could've never imagined having with a male. But now, eighteen years into it, it's making me batty. Making me cringe. Making me want to scream and rip my hair out. It's crushing my soul.