In the autumn of last year, just before Michael left his family to move in with his girlfriend, his daughter Julia had an accident that left her stunned but unhurt. She was playing with her doll on the cellar storm door—a low angled door Michael had long meant to replace that opened to stairs and the basement of the renovated farmhouse—when the old wood gave way. As he and his wife Melissa raked the dried leaves out of the nearby pachysandra, he suddenly heard a creak, loud but low, like ice breaking in a frozen bay. He dropped his rake and leaped for Julia, grabbing her tight to his chest just as the boards ruptured, breaking them through to the cold concrete of the basement floor before they realized they’d moved at all. They lay still for a moment, surrounded by long shards of wood, collecting themselves, registering the drop.
He remembered this scene today as he got ready for Julia’s school play—how much he missed simple activities like raking, and how he missed being there in the moment to help his daughters. He felt stressed because tonight would be his first “event” with Gwen, the woman whom he had asked to marry him (on a feverishly hot summer night last year, having just made love on the mattress on the floor in front of the darkened window of her apartment, the city and its lights unfolding endlessly before them, the whole scene having woken him in an unexpected way, as if his senses, predictable for so long he hadn’t realized they’d dulled, were suddenly awake and thrillingly alert. Though he was still technically, and legally, married).
Gwen, apparently, had her own concerns about the play. Fresh from her shower with wet hair, she came into the main room of the apartment where Michael was reading headlines on his iPhone at the small round table.
“You don’t think Julia will act up again?” Gwen asked as she towel-dried her dark hair. “That was upsetting.”
Last month, the pair took the girls to the zoo. It had just opened for the season, and the animals stood in their cages looking cold and unhappy. Gwen was unhappy. Michael hadn’t realized at the time that she was morally opposed to zoos. It was just one of the many things he hadn’t realized about her. His daughters, Isabelle and Julia, were trying to enjoy the outing. But when a monkey came running over to them, and smacked the glass of the enclosure and Isabelle laughed, Gwen shot out, “Poor thing. He doesn’t have any other outlet for his frustration.”
Isabelle looked stung by the words, but said nothing. Julia, always adamantly loyal to her big sister, immediately dropped Gwen’s hand, which she had been tentatively holding. She lifted her chin to look Gwen in the eye, and said, “My mommy says I have to be nice to you, but I don’t have to like you.”
Now Gwen stood before Michael, smelling of ginger or some other scent that did not belong in shampoo.
“Please,” she said. She gave his shoe a nudge with her bare foot. “Answer me.”
A month ago he would have pulled her onto his lap—the exposed neckline, the flimsy cotton robe that allowed glimpses of breast and thigh. Now it only reminded him of his urges, and how his urges had led him here, to this exact spot, this small table. He turned away from her.
“I’m not sure what she’ll do,” Michael said, finally. If not kind, at least it was true.
But Michael thought Gwen was more nervous about tonight because it was the first time she’d face Melissa, in this context as Official Girlfriend. Gwen is the younger sister of a friend—presented to the couple at a dinner party as a young woman trying to start her own landscaping business, needing to bolster her expertise.
“We should hire her,” Melissa had whispered to Michael, as the dinner plates were cleared. “Give her a little experience, and then she can use us as a reference.”
At the time, Michael had a strong sense that it would not go well—but he assumed that they would pay a lot of money to a young woman with grand ideas and little experience. Little did he know, he thought later, the tension would come instead from him, as he fell completely, fool-heartedly in love with this woman, in a passion that swamped him and overrode all his sensibilities.
Now tonight, getting ready for the play, he knew he should tell Gwen not to worry; they’re all adults, this was about Julia, not them. The truth is, he knew how Melissa would react: She’d be fine. She’d be pleasant, not gracious, but she’d shake Gwen’s hand, and ask them to join her so that they would present a united front for their heartbroken little girl. Then he’d sit in between the two women, his new love and his first love, and not be able to help but compare them, what they laugh at, when they whisper. But what he was afraid of was Melissa’s politeness, and that when she laughed or smiled it would be insular; he wouldn’t be involved. She would smile and watch her little girl, and he’d be outside of it. And Gwen would be thankful.
He set down the phone and watched Gwen as she pulled a brush though her long, dark hair in front of the mirror by the apartment door. She glanced over at him with a terse smile.
“Why aren’t you getting dressed yet?” she asked.
“I’m nervous about how Melissa will be tonight,” he lied. Gwen stopped moving, but didn’t put down her brush. He reached toward her, as if to put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m just not sure what to do,” he said. “For Julia’s sake.”
Even as he said it, he knew he shouldn’t play that card, but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted to see his wife.
She raised her eyebrows at him. “Why don’t you want me to go?”
“That’s not what I said—” He paused. “It’s Julia.”
“I don’t have a problem with you going to see Julia,” she said.
“Listen to yourself,” he said, feeling a warmth rush his cheeks. “It’s a school play for Godsakes.”
“Michael,” Gwen said, shaking her head. “It’s not just a school play.”
He needed to get out of the apartment. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “it is.” He grabbed his coat, telling her that he needed some air.
He heard the brush she’d been holding hit the floor. “We’re going to be late,” she said as he pushed past her for the door. “We have to leave in a half hour.”
He let the door close behind him without answering.
As he walked the city streets alone, Michael couldn’t help but remember all the times he had come into town with Melissa, though when he remembered Melissa, he inevitably thought of their home on Southbury Lane, their reconditioned farmhouse in the land of new builds, Melissa’s Steinway grand that required a bump-out addition of its own. Her piano music often travelled throughout the house, reaching you wherever you were. When Michael wasn’t in the room with her, she would sing as well. Her voice was soft at first, tentative, but then lengthened and rose with the arch of the song, growing in strength and resonance. It bothers him now that he doesn’t remember those songs; he can imagine how it felt to hear the chords from the other room, can remember how it felt to listen to his wife singing, but he can’t remember the words.
This is how it happened: After they hired Gwen, on the third day of her work in the backyard, she came into the kitchen to fill up her water bottle. Though he had been watching her from his home office window for days, digging gardens and planting boxwoods and relocating mums, this moment is when it began, he knew, because he grabbed his coffee cup and hurried into the kitchen to pretend he needed a refill.
“How’s it going out there?” he asked.
“Awesome!” she said. She flashed a smile with a small dimple in her left cheek that suggested pure joy. He felt a sudden, irrational pang: he wanted to be in that joy. Not just around it—in it. “The kids are loving the logs,” she said. “They told me they wanted a garden of their own, where they won’t get in trouble for picking stuff.” She took a swig of her water, then brushed a drop from her chin, leaving a smudge of dirt. “Mmm,” she said, and tried to get the dirt with the back of her hand, but there was dirt there too.
Michael was working from home for the summer while Melissa worked in her office. If Melissa had been home, she would have been none too happy with all the dirt in the kitchen, the muddy sneakers on the travertine floor. The kids were trained to use the outdoor sink for their hands, and leave their shoes on the mat by the sliding door. Something about watching this woman, truly dirty with dirt from his own yard, small beads of sweat on her exposed neckline, and the unexpected thrill of having her standing in his kitchen, made him feel that somehow a rule had already been broken. A small window unexpectedly opened, just then, and just a crack.
“Man, I’m a mess!” she said. She giggled, and then shrugged. “Anyways. I told them, what if they had their own garden, for mud pie ingredients. A Mud Pie Garden. They thought that was a great idea!”
Michael nodded. Mud-pie ingredients. For children. Really a brilliant thing to have. Of course, it would encourage them to use mud, which might not go over so well with Melissa. But really—they were children. Shouldn’t children use mud? He himself had played in mud as a child, and suddenly he wanted very strongly for his children to do the same.
“Yes,” he said. “I think that’s a great idea.”
“Great!” she said. “Very cool!”
He laughed—he couldn’t help it. “Very cool!” he repeated. The words felt ill-formed, coming out of his mouth, words Melissa would raise her eyebrows at, were she to hear him say them. (He’d reflect on this later, from the sunken couch in the main room of Gwen’s studio apartment, reading a book while Gwen worked, waiting tables at night, reading a book because she had no TV, TV being one of the things that reminded her of the former live-in boyfriend. In these quiet moments, he would think of his former life, Sunday afternoons on the couch with a cold low-label beer, watching sports on his 60-inch Mitsubishi Laser TV, bought specifically because it best matriculates the color red, which is difficult for TVs to reproduce, thus ensuring movies, shows, even children’s cartoons, were all viewed in optimal experience. At these times he would think: You become someone different, when you’re with someone else. The person you are with shapes who you are.)
But in the kitchen that day, as Gwen took another long pull from her water bottle, he watched her throat move as she swallowed. There was dirt on her neck as well, and tiny speckles on her shirt, a pink tank top.
He went to the sink and turned on the water, rinsed out his cup. With his back to her, he could regain himself. When he turned back around, he felt more himself again. Calm. “I think the kids would enjoy a garden like that,” he said.
“Awesome!” Gwen paused as though she might say more, but then she shrugged again and smiled and headed out the back door. He walked to the living room and stood at the edge of the window, shielded behind the velvet camel curtains (this, he remembered from the long debate about the virtues of camel versus buckwheat). He watched as Julia dropped her toys in the sandbox and ran to hug the young woman’s leg and Gwen mussed Julia’s hair and gave her a squeeze. Isabelle hung back but when Gwen went over, Isabelle raised an elaborate dish that Michael could see was, in fact, a mud pie. He could just make out the flowers, bright purple and pink against the dirt.
Now as the sun started to set in the haze of the spring air in the city, he tried to remember the feeling that had overcome him that day, that desire to simply have Gwen within the borders of his life. He didn’t need more—so he thought that day. It was okay—he had his family. He didn’t need more.
He didn’t plan how it would unfold. He didn’t plan the days spent at the beach. He didn’t plan the night when the kids were at their grandparents’ and Melissa was at a dinner in the city and Gwen came back because she forgot her backpack, of all things, and he didn’t plan to offer her a glass of wine, and didn’t plan to laugh so heartily when she said, “I’d rather have a beer,” and how they sat on the stone patio and laughed and laughed, and it began. The unfolding began. He hadn’t planned it.
What he wished for now was this: clarity. To have a map he could interpret and define, to know for sure what sparked the change. Did Melissa know about Gwen before he told her? Did she come home and sense that this new woman’s touch eclipsed work in the garden? He could point to the moment he had first felt desire for Gwen—but what was the moment that his heart had first left Melissa? Had there been such a moment? He couldn’t remember now. It seemed now, in fact, that his heart had not left her after all.
In those final weeks, Melissa was always at the piano. It seemed she chose her work over him more and more, her music over him. Now she sang whether he was in the room or not. And though he hated to look back at this, hated to remember, he finally asked her to stop.
It was one of the few nights he’d actually gone to the office and worked late. He was stressed with the pressure of work projects he hadn’t been attending to properly due to the new distractions. He couldn’t keep everything going at once—he could see that now—and Gwen wanted so much for him to move into her apartment in the city, to go with her to dinner, to the theater, on trips to the Cape.
That night at home, as Michael sat down on the couch with the newspaper, trying to relax, trying to read, he thought about how every night at his house was so much the same: dinner, children’s bath, children’s books, children’s bedtime, Melissa at the piano, playing on and on, singing.
He set down the paper, then his glass of seltzer, loud on the table, thinking she might get the hint to stop. When she didn’t, he cleared his throat. Still nothing.
He stood up and walked to the doorway of the living room, where he could see her back as she reached urgently for the keys, up and down the octaves.
“Melissa! Please!” he yelled. “Shut up!”
And the worst part, the part that leaves him cold in the throat, is that she did. And that night, he was glad.
It suddenly seemed not just important but necessary that he go to the play alone. He turned back toward the apartment, where Gwen would be waiting. When was it that Melissa and he had stopped making plans, having dinner, building a life? When was the last time he made love to her—for real, overwhelmed with her—not just the sex he passed off as love in the later days, the days of showering before returning home? When had he last told her he loved her and meant it? Surely he did love her, though at the time he left he needed someone to fight against, so that he could break free.
Now he felt that he actually did have to break free. He started jogging, dodging people on the sidewalk, their purses and dogs. He needed to tell Gwen, Yes, yes he was going to see Melissa. Somehow, it didn’t seem that that could be wrong. He would not fight with Gwen, just tell her.
When he got back to the building, out of breath, he had a vision of opening the door and finding Gwen in yoga pants—having her so mad at him she went and changed her clothes as if to say, Forget it. You go. He knew such a scene would cause a much bigger, more complex fight later, if he then whispered, Thank you, and headed back out the door.
But maybe there would never be a “later”—maybe Melissa would see him tonight and recognize his face, accept him, remember. He wanted to bury his mouth in her neck, feel the sweet pressure of her face against his. He wanted to wake each morning in the house where he could hear the birds, and the window frames shuddering in the wind. He wanted the children to wake them on Saturday morning by crawling in between him and Melissa, snuggling under the quilt. He wanted to make French toast while his wife sat with his daughter at the piano, teaching her scales. He wanted to go to sleep at night, Melissa curled into his chest, and feel, Here is one solid thing: my life. He wanted to hear Melissa sing.
He opened the apartment door and Gwen was standing there with her purse. “We have to go,” she said.
For a brief moment, he thought it might just be easier not to fight, to let her go. Or maybe argue about it in the car. But then he thought about the moment when he’d first see Melissa entering the school auditorium, the moment that could bring it all back.
“No,” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“No, Gwen.” He took her purse from her and set it on the couch. “I want to go by myself.”
“Michael, you’d have to be crazy to think you can ask me to sit in this apartment all night wondering what’s going on.”
“Nothing’s going on,” he said, “I’m just going to a simple, little school play—”
“I mean, what’s going on with you.”
He didn’t answer her, not at first. They were both quiet.
“I don’t know,” he said, finally. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he didn’t know what else to say. He took his car keys from the table by the door.
“Don’t expect me to be here when you get back.” Her voice sounded higher, strained. “You can’t expect me to sit here alone while you’re with her.”
“I don’t expect that,” he said and turned to the door. She grabbed his arm.
“You can’t do this!” she snapped. Her face was blotched red. “You can’t have us both! That’s not fair.”
In all the years he had been married to Melissa, she had never grabbed his arm. It hurt actually, and he looked down at her perfectly rounded fingernails pinching into his skin.
“I’m not trying to be unfair,” Michael said.
She held for another moment and when he didn’t move, she let go.
“If you leave me here,” she said, “leave the key, too.” She held out her hand. He noticed the tremble, and suddenly he wanted to take it back. He didn’t mean to hurt her, too.
They both stood quietly while he extricated the key from the ring. He handed it to her, and she backed away and shut the door. He stood at the landing a moment with a sick sensation, like someone had hit him in the throat. But by the time he got to the garage and unlocked his car, he had the feeling you get like when you first leave a job—scared you made the wrong decision, knowing it’s irreversible, then as you walk down the steps the last time, into the fresh air, the same air you’ve stepped into every day that now seems so different, you know how you feel: free.
As he entered the school auditorium, he imagined how it would feel to leave tonight with his wife and children. He could see Melissa as they went to find their daughter after the play, how she’d tell Julia she had a surprise, a good one. Then Julia would look up at him, delight playing across her face, and he’d pick her up and say, It’s true.
But as he looked for a seat, he glanced back toward the entrance just as Melissa was walking in, lightly holding the arm of a tall man, dark hair falling just below his shoulder. She glanced up at the man as she walked, smiled at something he said. He leaned down and whispered something, and this time she laughed.
Michael sat down immediately, opened up the program, looked at it. A wave of fever warmth pulsed through him, and he thought maybe he could leave quickly, out the side door, but he knew then he’d be seen. He looked at the program, trying to read. Was she in love? He made himself focus on the words of the program—The Four Seasons, a play in four acts: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring. Mrs. McCleary’s first grade class. He found his daughter’s name; she was the daffodil of spring.
“Daddy!” Isabelle was before him. He had somehow forgotten she would be here too.
“Hi!” he forced himself to smile, and hugged her from across the seats.
“Michael,” Melissa yelled across the rows, waving her free hand. “Mind if we sit with you?” She moved toward him, thinner, it seemed, her blond hair tied in a loose braid.
“Of course!” He tried to sound jovial, happy. He put an arm around Isabelle’s shoulder and squeezed, and she looked up at him with a mouth that smiled and eyes that contained questions. He looked away.
As Melissa and the man got closer, Michael realized the man had seemed young because of his long hair and straight leather jacket, but now he could see lines shaping his face, and skin that wasn’t really tan, but thick-looking, like on someone who sailed. As she introduced him to the man—to Neil—her face seemed to light his recognition, her blue eyes wide, expectant, a smile at the corner of her lips, ready to give. She told Michael their story in a rush of words: They met while she was doing an article on landscape garden design. He owned his own nursery out in Natick. The girls loved him; he loved children. He might even teach them to ride the old Palomino he had. They sat down, Melissa closest to Michael, sitting right on her coat, smelling of soap.
“Gwen couldn’t make it?” she asked.
“She had to work,” he said. They both knew it wasn’t true. But only he knew the reason.
As the lights dimmed for the play, he felt himself wanting to reach for Melissa’s hand, thinking that she was still more his than this other man’s, that he was still hers. But she leaned back, settled into her seat, and kept her hands on her lap. She clapped when the snowflakes of winter left the stage, then whispered something to the man.
“Oh!” the man said, and reached in his bag, pulling out a large 35 millimeter camera. Michael hadn’t brought a camera.
Then Melissa touched his arm. For a brief moment he thought she meant to tell him something, that she knew what had happened and why, that she loved him, that tonight, the man, Neil, was just a mistake, just a way to get back at him, and he almost told her, I know, I love you. But then she said, “Julia’s coming.”
His daughter entered the stage with a flood of other children flowers—tulips, lilies, and finally her row of daffodils, yellow tissue paper framing her face, her arms dressed like long green leaves. The man jumped to take her picture, then jogged down the center aisle in a squat position so he could take a shot from up close. Melissa didn’t even need to suggest it. He was probably the kind of man who’d dress up with the kids on Halloween, who’d spend his evenings in the kitchen with Melissa, helping her plan gardens and dinners. The kind of man who’d encourage her to sing. Michael wanted to be like that.
After the play, out in the halls, Michael followed behind Melissa and the man as they went to find Julia. Isabelle uncharacteristically held his hand. Her hand in his felt small and precious, like already this was a memory, though here they were, walking the hall together.
They navigated the crowd of children and parents, and turned a corner to find Julia standing with a group of kids by the teacher. Still dressed in her green jumpsuit, with yellow daffodil petals hanging from her neck, she ran to Michael, clinging to his leg. He let go of Isabelle’s hand and leaned down to pick Julia up. She looked at him then with the face he remembered from their fall through the cellar door so many long months ago. Sunlight had splintered through the cracked door above them. Wrapped tight in his arms, she had lain with him on the cold basement floor. Neither of them trembled; neither of them moved. Cold moments passed. Then he lifted his hand to brush back her hair, check her arms, her legs, and as he did her face turned to his, pulled tight around her eyes, her mouth shaping a scream that came from so deep inside of her that it was nearly silent. And in the hallway of the grammar school, surrounded by child flowers and proud parents, he realized that his life had changed, he had made it change, and he finally understood the panic his daughter must have felt that day as she turned her face to his, her blue eyes pleading and frightened by what had just happened, in motion before there was time to stop.
Jennifer Kircher Carr is a fiction writer living in western New York. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in in numerous literary journals, including the North American Review, Hobart, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly,Literary Orphans, and The Nebraska Review, where she also won the Fiction Prize. Her nonfiction is published in Poet & Writers, Ploughshares online, and The Review Review, among others. She is working on a collection of linked fiction, which includes this story.