Authors: Jennifer Weiner
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Also by Jennifer Weiner
Good in Bed
In Her Shoes
The Guy Not Taken
Best Friends Forever
Fly Away Home
The Half Life
Then Came You
Tommy had been dead for six months when Maureen found the box he’d left for her in the attic.
She’d gone up there to retrieve the Halloween decorations, the glow-in-the-dark eyeballs and fake spiders that she’d twine around the front gate, the witch’s hat she’d perch on her head when she stood in the doorway, handing out candy to kids who looked less and less familiar each year, and the candy bowl itself, with a plastic claw perched on the edge (the claw would open and shut dramatically, grasping for a trick-or-treater’s hand when Maureen pressed a button underneath).
The Halloween stuff was where she expected to find it, in a lidded plastic storage bin with the word
written in Tom’s clear, firm handwriting on a sticker on top. The box was next to it, wrapped in silvery paper, tied with a gold bow. A small white envelope was slipped underneath the bow, and her name, again in Tommy’s handwriting, was on it.
, it read.
Suddenly breathless, as if her husband’s ghost had popped up out of nowhere to stand before her, glaring, Maureen staggered backward and tripped over the Halloween stuff. The bin tipped onto its side, spilling its contents—tea light candles and spray-can spiderwebs, tubes of black and silver glitter, a squirt bottle of fake blood, a grinning, glow-in-the-dark skull—onto the attic floor. “Jesus God, Tom, you scared me!” she said, one hand over her heart and her whole body trembling. It took her a few minutes to
remind herself that Tommy wasn’t here, that Tommy was gone, dead and gone, that Tommy would never scare her again.
“Silly goose,” she told herself. That hadn’t been one of Tommy’s pet names for her—
had sufficed as an endearment during the long dark night of their marriage. “Silly goose” was what she called Tom Junior and Liza when they were up to some small bit of childish mischief. Then, knees creaking, Maureen hunkered down in an awkward crouch and began to pick up the mess. When order was restored, and the bin neatly re-lidded, she picked up the gift box in the corner.
, she read again, this time without squealing or gasping or stumbling around like some girl. She was fifty-four years old, too old to act like a child. With one ragged thumbnail she slit the envelope open. The card contained just three words:
Love always, Tommy.
Maureen bent her head. A dull red flush had risen to her cheeks. One hand wandered almost reflexively to her hair, gathered up a hank and started pulling. Not gently. “Oh, Tommy,” she whispered, sick with shame, dizzy with guilt. She and her husband had had their secret life, it was true, but that didn’t mean he was without kindness. At his funeral, their daughter had said that her dad was a man who never forgot a birthday, never forgot an anniversary, and would take time to write letters as the Tooth Fairy when each of Liza’s teeth had fallen out.
Love always, Tommy.
Had he loved her after all? She sent her mind back along the thirty years of their union and decided that the answer was no … or maybe that what Tommy had named
was some mutant variation on the real thing, a toxic and night-blooming flower that he called a rose.
She lifted the box, feeling its weight. Not heavy, not light. She shook it experimentally. It didn’t make a sound. She would wait, she decided. “Always safe, never sorry,” she whispered—that had been one of Tommy’s sayings, he had a million of them—and carried both the bin and the box down the stairs.
* * *
The closest Maureen had ever come to telling a living soul about what went on in her house had been during lunch with her sister. She and Laura got their mammograms together, the one time each year they could be guaranteed to see each other, even though they lived barely forty miles apart. They’d make a day of it, scheduling the procedure for first thing in the morning, resigning themselves to the wait, then to the discomfort of what Laura called The Big Squeeze, treating themselves to lunch after. They’d been doing it for years, long enough to recognize the staff, the radiologists and the nurses, but the last time they’d gone, a new, young nurse had joined Maureen in her little cubicle. The nurse had a tattoo that read FRANKI on the soft flesh of her upper arm, visible beneath her scrubs, and a clipboard in her hand.
“Just a few questions,” she said in a thick Philadelphia accent, planting her broad bottom on the wheeled stool.
Maureen stifled a sigh and the urge to tell the girl that nothing had changed. She had the same address, the same insurance, the same social security number and date of birth as last time, as indeed every time she’d come. But she let the girl do her job, asking for her home phone and cell phone and the date of her last physical. Then she’d come to the question that had startled her. “Are you experiencing violence in your home?”
“I’m sorry?” Maureen asked.
The nurse repeated the question, reading each word distinctly. “Are … you … experiencing … ”
“No, no. Of course not.” She tried for a chuckle. “I mean, look at me!” Maureen was tall, five feet ten inches, broad in the hips and the shoulders, and pretty much everywhere else these days, too, since she’d turned fifty and some malevolent god had summoned an extra twenty pounds out of the air and sent them to live around her midriff.
The young nurse wasn’t looking or laughing. She just looked bored, like she’d rather be anywhere else, anywhere but here interrogating some flabby old lady in a paper gown. “So that’s a no?” she asked.
“Right. Yes. No.”
Later, at lunch, she’d asked Laura whether she’d gotten the same question. “Yup,” said her sister, lavishing butter on her cheddar-cheese biscuit (Laura had one of those zippy metabolisms, and no matter what she ate, she maintained her slim Jackie O figure, trim hips and bottom and token nubs for breasts). “I said, if anyone’s getting abused in my house, it’s Stan, not me. Of course it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it.” Maureen forced her lips into a smile and toyed with her salad. Laura looked at her closely.
“Why do you ask?” Laura inquired.
“Oh, no reason. It’s just that they’ve never asked me that before. I wondered if it was a new thing.”
“Probably some new law. They’ve probably got to ask everyone.” Laura ate her biscuit, and they were chatting about the skirt they had seen at Joan Shepp—marked down once already, but Laura was hoping for additional discounts—when her sister changed the subject.
“Maureen,” she said, “you know, if there was something going on, you could tell me.”
Maureen, who thought they were talking about the skirt, stared at her, puzzled. “What do you mean, something going on?”
“With Tommy,” her sister amplified. She made a face. “I know he doesn’t like me very much … ”
“Oh, Laur, that’s not true,” Maureen said, even though the lie tasted like paste in her mouth.
“Come on, Mo,” said her sister. “I don’t like him, he doesn’t like me, that’s neither here nor there. What I want to know … ” She drew a breath and looked at Maureen steadily across the table. “He’s not hitting you. Is he?”
“Of course not,” said Maureen. She sounded shocked, and she was sure she looked surprised. Her sister’s face relaxed, and Maureen relaxed, too. After all, she’d told the God’s honest truth. In their thirty years of marriage, years that had brought them two children, a boy and a girl, Tommy had never once raised a hand to her in anger.
Tommy was a pincher.
* * *
The first time it had happened was three nights before their wedding. All weddings were stressful, Maureen knew. She’d been a bridesmaid for two of her sisters by then, had seen firsthand the way people behaved, or misbehaved, as that amped-up confluence of money and family drew closer. Laura had thrown the box containing her husband-to-be’s cuff links at him when he’d show up, pale and hungover and half an hour late, to the rehearsal, and her best friend, Maisie Greaves, had had a breakdown in the
bride’s room just before she was to walk down the aisle, sobbing over and over, “I can’t, I can’t, and you can’t make me!” until Mrs. Greaves crushed two Valiums into a can of Diet Coke and made Maisie drink it down, and Mr. Greaves had taken her by the elbow and practically frog-marched her up to the priest.
Maureen and Tommy were paying for their own wedding—service at the church, luncheon for the relatives, and a bash for their friends at the VFW hall that night. They’d fought about the flowers. Specifically, Maureen thought they needed something, even just a modest centerpiece on each table, and Tommy thought it was a waste. “Why should we spend money on something that’s just going to rot in a jar?” he asked.
“Because it looks nice,” Maureen said. “And the tables are going to look empty without them. People will say we’re being … ” The word
had teetered treacherously on the tip of her tongue. She bit it back just in time. Tommy was sensitive about what he called their financial situation. He assured her over and over that it wouldn’t last for long, even though she didn’t care, not that much—everyone they knew was living like this, renting too-small apartments and driving secondhand cars. It was the nature of being twenty-four, and Maureen kind of enjoyed it, clipping coupons and scouring the papers for somewhere they could go out Friday night and not have to pay a cover charge, but Tommy regarded it all as beneath him, an embarrassment.
That night Tommy had narrowed his eyes. “Come over here,” he said, his voice slow and measured. Maureen had come, walking across the bedroom in her short, sheer nightgown. Tommy, who’d been lying on the bed in just his boxer shorts, lean and, to her eyes, startlingly handsome, with his shock of dark hair and even features, slid one hand along the curve of her hip.
“You know what?” he asked, in that calm, conversational tone. “You’re getting fat.” Quick as a snake, his fingers pinched the skin on her hip and twisted. Maureen had gasped, more from the shock of it than the pain. She’d jerked backward, but Tommy kept pinching, kept twisting, like he was trying to pry that bit of flesh and skin right off her. His fingers felt like iron. His lips were peeled back, his teeth were bared, and through the flaring agony of her hip, Maureen thought fleetingly,
An animal, he looks just like an animal,
before finally, finally, Tommy let her go.
For a moment, they stood there, regarding each other, in the tacky little bedroom of the apartment on Kater Street, where they slept in a futon on a black metal frame, not yet having saved the money for a proper bed. She was panting, her chest lifting and falling visibly, each breath coming in a pained gasp. Tommy, propped up on one elbow, his body still tan from summer, was staring at her coolly, in silence, with his handsome face composed.
“What do you want to do about it, Mo?” he asked her. “Ball’s in your court.” That was another Tommyism, about the ball, the court.
Maureen thought. She thought of all the nights in college when she’d accompanied her girlfriends to parties and watch them pair up one by one and slip away into the night while she waited, feeling enormous, feeling monstrous, one too-big hand wrapped around a plastic cup of beer. She thought of the first time Tommy had asked her out, how he’d come right up to her after their economics lecture and invited her to the movies, how her heart had lifted, and how a voice in her head had whispered,
I am saved
. She thought of a hundred and fifty invitations, ornate script on ivory card stock, each envelope stamped and licked shut and slipped into the mailbox on the corner of Second
and Pine. She thought about the front room of their apartment, full of gifts from Macy’s and Wanamaker’s, gifts they planned to return in exchange for cash that would set them up somewhere nicer. She thought of the dress, Priscilla of Boston, nine hundred dollars, hands down the most expensive item of clothing she’d ever owned, already steamed and pressed, hanging in the closet. She thought of how her mother had screamed in delight when Maureen had flashed the diamond, small but with a lot of fire, on her left hand (she hadn’t realized how problematic her parents believed marrying off their tall, ungainly youngest daughter would be until she heard that scream). Most of all, she thought about how her period was supposed to have arrived the previous Saturday, only it hadn’t. And how would that look? To cancel a wedding with a bun in the oven, to have everyone whispering eight months later when the baby arrived?
, she imagined Holly, the oldest and prettiest of her sisters saying.