Part 7 (1/2)

Her shrink had said once that the right sort of relations.h.i.+p wouldnat require so much thought. It would just fit. Maggie had wanted to point out that if that were truea”if love actually came easy and stayed that waya”the woman would likely be out of a job.

The problem was that you couldnat divide a person up, pick and choose the parts you liked and the parts you didnat. There were parts of Gabe that made her love him so much that she wanted to hold on to him forever, even though there was no such thing. She could actually cry at the thought of him dying before she did, when they were both in their nineties.

He stirred around seven oaclock, and she reached for him, running her hand down his stomach, dipping her fingers under the elastic band of his boxer shorts.

aYou awake?a she said, feeling desperate for him, when he lay right there beside her.

He grunted.

aIam sorry,a she said. aI shouldnat have been such a drama queen.a Gabe opened his eyes. He grinned. ad.a.m.n woman, youare Oscar-worthy.a With those words came the familiar flood of relief: the fight was over, and it hadnat ended them. She slid his boxers down and climbed on top of him, kissing his neck. He pulled off her T-s.h.i.+rt and licked her nipples in tiny perfect circles. They made love and afterward he ordered them eggs Benedict from room service, and made Maggie laugh with the story of how Cunninghamas girlfriend, Shauna, had pa.s.sed out drunk on an ice sculpture after Maggie went upstairs.

aSo, can I stay?a she said, in a childas voice that she hated the sound of.

aAre you going to behave yourself?a he asked.

aYes,a she said.

aGood, because I hate being away from you.a aMe too.a Things were fine between them for a few months after that. Gabe took her for a surprise long weekend in Berlin, and they had an amazing time popping into galleries and cafs. They stayed in a five-star palace, which had been the setting for the Greta Garbo film Grand Hotel. (Maggie sent her grandmother a postcard to tell her so.) She was impressed with how easily Gabe spoke to the locals, how charmed everyone seemed by him. She felt proud to be the one he had chosen.

But then one Friday night back in New York he canceled their dinner plans abruptly because he said he was coming down with a cold. She asked him if she ought to come over and bring him some soup, but he was tired and said he didnat want to get her sick. He called her before ten and said he was going to bed. The next day, sensing that he had lied (he seemed perfectly healthy to her, and it wasnat the first time shead heard him pretend to be sick), Maggie looked through the call log on his cell phone while he was out picking up lunch, and there they were: two calls from the previous night, around three and four a.m., to a random number she didnat recognize.

Feeling sick to her stomach, Maggie dialed the number from her own phone and heard a voice mail recording: aYouave reached Stephanie. Leave a message.a When he came home with sandwiches from the deli, she asked him about the calls. He went into the bedroom without saying a word and slammed the door, locking it behind him. She sat on the couch, still as stone, waiting. He returned to the living room twenty minutes later and screamed at her for snooping, saying he had been out with guys from college and didnat always want her in tow. He needed his s.p.a.ce, time away from her, if this could ever work.

aWhose number was that?a she said, shaking.

aOne of the guys. You donat know him.a aGabe, I called it,a she said.

He hung his head. aOh.a aSo?a aItas not what you think,a he said, a phrase that never led anywhere good. aItas the number of a dealer, someone who sells c.o.ke. It wasnat for me, I swear. It was for these guys who were visiting.a aI heard a girlas voice,a she said.

aItas a decoy. It always goes straight to that voice mail; you leave a message and they call you back,a he said. Then he actually began to cry, which she had never seen him do before. aYou have to believe me. I donat want to lose you over something stupid like this.a Somehow she ended up feeling relieved by his explanation. At least he hadnat cheated; at least he still loved her. It wasnat until a week or so later that she considered the fact that Gabe had the number of a cocaine dealer. She didnat know anything about cocaine, but she knew enough to realize that there was a difference between occasionally trying it at a party, say, and being the guy with the hookup.

She didnat want to leave him. She just wanted him to change, even as she recognized this as cla.s.sic child-of-an-alcoholic behavior, even as she could hear her motheras voice in her head saying the only person you can ever truly change is yourself.

Still, Maggie wanted somehow to jolt him into action, to make him realize that certain parts of him needed transformation, or shead be forced to go. She remembered nights when she was a little girl. Sometimes, long after dinner and homework and baths were through, they would hear her fatheras car pull into the driveway, and her mother would say with a broad smile: aLetas hide from Daddy.a Back then, this was Maggieas favorite game, one of those deliciously rare moments when the grown-ups entered the world of children. But as an adult, she often wondered what all that had been about and imagined that perhaps her mother did it to send her husband a warning: If you keep coming home at any time you choose, smelling like liquor without a decent excuse, someday you will walk through that door and find your family gone.

Kathleen.

The ginger tea had steeped now and on the kitchen table were six large buckets of steamed organic waste, ready to be served. Kathleen got a kick out of imagining herself writing in to the BC alumni magazine: Kathleen Kelleher lives in California and is considered the best worm chef on the West Coast. Her most popular dish consists of four hundred banana peels, hold the mold, and fifteen dozen eggsh.e.l.ls, lightly toasted, with a soupon of decomposing apple core.

Later, they would feed the newly hatched worms the first meal of their lives. She had once told Maggie that doing this felt somehow profound. You wanted to welcome them into the world properly. Maggie found all of it revolting. Kathleen understooda”hers was not a glamorous way of life, and okay, yes, she could see how it might seem kind of goofy. But she couldnat help but get caught up in it. Arloas pa.s.sion was contagious.

The worms across the barn from the newborns had filled their containers with droppings now. This afternoon she would have to coax them into the corners of their boxes with sweet rose petals, while Arlo scooped up the results. He would place the droppings in oversize garbage bags and then put the bags in the back of his pickup. Tomorrow they would transport several loads to the edge of the property, where Arlo had set up a makes.h.i.+ft bottling a.s.sembly line. They paid high school kids ten dollars an hour to do that part.

When she heard his truck in the driveway, Kathleen strained the tea through a paper towel into two Boston Red Sox mugs and walked toward the back door.

He crossed the stone path and climbed up the steps, holding a bouquet of calla lilies wrapped in brown paper.

aGood morning, my love,a he said, opening the screen door and stepping inside. The dogs clamored in behind him.

aTrade you,a she said. She took the flowers from Arlo and handed him a mug. aThese are gorgeous.a aArenat they? One of the moms at this Girl Scout event told me she had a flower shop in town. Sheas been using our p.o.o.p tea on all the merchandise and itas lived twice as long as normal. So I stopped in to the shopa”amazing colors, Kath. You would have loved it.a He was all fired up from his lecture. She grinned.

Seeing her work, he smiled too. aYouare amazing. You did all this just this morning?a Arlo was the sort of person who went out of his way to be kinda”unlike her family members, who acted as though giving a compliment would cost them too much. And she and Arlo valued the same things. That was important. They both believed in homeopathy and in living a chemical-free life; they both believed in protecting the earth. To most people back home, this was all just a little too far out. But Arlo was on the same page, or perhaps even a chapter or two ahead of her, when it came to such ideas.

On their first date, even though it wasnat technically advisable, they drove to his place after going for coffee. They watched the news and then had s.e.x on Arloas sofa, under a framed Steal Your Face poster. In the morning, he fed her strawberries from his garden. Afterward, despite the poster, Kathleen called Maggie to say that she might be falling in love.

Before Arlo, she had dated and slept with several of the men she met at AA. Which was funny, considering she had been with Paul for more than a decade when they divorced, and couldnat remember a time when theyad had s.e.x sober. In Boston, a couple of the guys were brand-new to the program and therefore forbidden, but she had done it anyway. One was there on a court order, recently released after three months in prison for a drunken bar fight that left his opponent unconscious. Another was only twenty, the same age as Maggie at the time. Every now and then it all struck Kathleen as wrong, but in the heat of the moment she mostly figured that they were all addicts confronting those demons head-on, and so they deserved a bit of a pa.s.s for seeking out pleasure that wasnat somehow related to booze. (For the same reason, she went through phases of allowing herself to eat whatever she likeda”a bag of Chips Ahoy! cookies for dinner, two cinnamon crullers from Dunkina Donuts as an afternoon snack.) Arlo stroked her hair now and said, aWeave gotta get to work out in the barn soon.a aYes.a aBut maybe a little disco nap first? Iam beat.a aYou go ahead up, honey.a She took the mug back from him and put both cups down on the table.

aDonat let me sleep longer than fifteen minutes, okay?a he said.

She agreed, kissing him on the cheek before he made his way upstairs. The familiar sound of his feet on the creaking floorboards warmed her.

She sat down at the table. Mabel came over, resting her snout on Kathleenas thigh.

ah.e.l.lo, angel,a she said.

A year earlier, the dog had had a tumor in her leg. Mabel was thirteen then. The vet had a.s.sumed they would put her down, but Kathleen insisted on surgery. The cost was five thousand dollars, which objectively she could admit was a lot. But it seemed like nothing set against another good year with Mabel.

aMerry Christmas,a Arlo had said when he wrote the check, even though it was only September.

The phone rang.

Kathleen hoped it was the school superintendent from Keystone finally calling back. She momentarily ran over her usual spiel: Sixty percent of the waste in our nationas landfills is food waste, which never should have gone there in the first place. We feed our worms on such wastea”fruit peels, eggsh.e.l.ls, gra.s.s and yard clippings. Most of our food comes from the cafeterias of six school systems in the area, and wead love to make yours number seven.

But when she answered, it was her sister, Clare, at the other end of the line.

aDid you guys know youare in the current issue of Organic Living magazine?a she said.

aYou read Organic Living?a Kathleen asked.

aJoe picked it up at the doctoras office. He smuggled the copy out in his shorts!a Kathleen smiled.

aWhy didnat you tell us? Joeas taping the article in the store window right now.a Clare sounded happy. In her former job, Kathleen had always thought of her when she advised awkward adolescents that life would get better. For Clare, this had proven true. She had always felt somewhat removed from their relatives, Kathleen thought. They treated her like she was a sn.o.b for being inquisitive and bookish. (Even Kathleen herself was guilty of it. She didnat come around to seeing the beauty of her sister until much later. She realized that maybe she had been jealous of Clare when they were younger, because Clare was the smart one, the one who really didnat care what anyone else thought. Kathleen wasnat brave like that until she hit middle age.) Clare and her husband, Joe, were both the brains of non-brainy families. Their business, selling Catholic paraphernalia to priests and grandmothers, was a strange fit for a couple of liberal intellectuals who lived in Jamaica Plain. But they made a killing.

aHowas Ryan?a Kathleen asked now.

aHeas great. He got a second callback for Kiss Me Kate at Wheelock Family Theatre. The rehearsals are in August, so if he gets it, it will completely mess up our plans for Maine.a aDonat tell Ann Marie. Sheall accuse you of elder abuse for abandoning Alice there.a aOh please. Those two should just run off together and make it official already,a Clare said. aThat was mean of me. Joeas a bad influence. Iam sure weall go for at least a week. Maybe more, depending. You and Arlo should join us.a aI donat think we can get away,a Kathleen said, and though they both knew there was a lot more to it than that, neither of them elaborated.

aWell, if you change your mind, let me know. We wonat pull up the drawbridge for our allotted month the way the Perfects do.a They talked about work and about Alice and an old schoolmate of theirs who had gotten married for the seventh time last month.

Then Clare said, aWhich reminds me! Ryan told me this funny idea he had for a musical. It would be about different couples at their weddings, and then it would follow them into their marriages. The idea being that the wedding a couple has will predict what their marriage will be like. I think heas a genius! I know Iam biased. But heas on to something, right? Think about our three weddingsa”yours, mine, and Patas.a Patrick and Ann Marieas had been an over-the-top affair at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, exactly what one might expect from a couple of show-offs like them, pretending at the wealth they wanted so badly. Ann Marieas dress was pure white lace; the flower girls wore pink tutus. All of their parentsa friends were in attendance, the average guestas age hovering somewhere around fifty-three. But as far as Clare noticed, Pat and Ann Marie never exchanged a single tender gesture: no handholding as they came off the dance floor, or kissing, unless someone did the hideous fork ding, in which case theyad pucker for the cameras like a couple of hams.

Kathleen and Paulas wedding was emblematic of their s.h.i.+tty relations.h.i.+p, too, Clare said. They kissed pa.s.sionately in the church, a fact that irked Alice to no end. They danced like crazy, bodies rubbing up against each other as if no one else were in the room. By ten thirty, they were both drunk. Two friends of Paulas got into a fistfight in the menas room. Kathleen tried to break them apart and ended up with blood on her dress. Afterward, she sobbed unabashedly at the head table, and when Clare came to check on her, she grabbed Clareas wrist and said, aIn case you had any money riding on it, Iam pregnant.a They found this amusing now, proof positive, Kathleen thought, that almost anything could be funny given enough distance, time, and therapy. It grated on her, though, the way that no Kelleher could take a relations.h.i.+p seriously if it wasnat a marriage. She had been with Arlo for almost as long as she was married to Paul, but her family, even Clare, still thought of Paul as the primary partner of her life. Another lesson for Maggie: The most important choice you can make is the person you reproduce with. Youall be stuck with him forever, even when you havenat spoken in twenty years.

Clare and Joe had been married by a friend of theirs in a garden outside Harvard Square, with just Kathleen and Maggie and a few friends as witnesses, and then everyone had gone for a big dinner at Casablanca, with chocolate ganache cake for dessert. Neither of them wanted a honeymoon. They only wanted to spend a week together in their apartment, watching movies and cooking big dinners, which they ate in bed, spread out over old issues of The New Yorker. They spent years of Sat.u.r.days in that apartment in the same way, drinking coffee all morning, peaceful, satisfied.

Clare had gotten pregnant almost as an afterthought right around their sixth anniversary, the summer Joeas dad died. They named their only son Ryan after his paternal grandfather. Ryan was a hoot from the time he was a toddler. He sang and danceda”Clare often said proudly that he tapped before he crawled.