He nods. “Go on?”
“Just part time. Ah . . . in fashion,” I end up saying, because no one can argue that the things she sews for Zoey aren’t perfectly fitted, stylish, and well chosen. If she hired me as her coach, I’d definitely see if she wanted to take that gift any further.
Although one can guess she would never hire me in a million years.
“Fashion!” says Seth, pleased. “So you get it. Where the art meets commerce . . . that’s where the magic happens.” He pauses. “Or doesn’t,” he adds sadly.
“Stuff isn’t selling?” I ask.
“Not selling. Not even getting press. I can’t remember the last good review I had. My work lacks assurance. That’s what the last one said. I’m in a crisis of confidence. Ever since . . . well . . .”
“What?” I ask. “Ever since what?”
“It’s nothing,” he says, shaking his head.
“It’s not nothing to me,” I tell him, wishing he knew just how true that was for the real me. “I’m interested.”
He takes a long swig of beer. “It’s just, Celeste, you have to understand my wife. She’s an amazing woman,” he says.
My heart seems to expand outward with pride. I never dreamed he would say things like this about me, after all this time. But then he keeps talking.
“Too amazing. She seems to think everyone should be able to work at the level she does, which is nonstop. She thinks I should be working nine to five and bringing home a fat paycheck. And if I can’t do that, she wants me home all the time, to just drop everything—my art, my passion—and become the perfect family man. No offense, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in a guy. It’s honorable, is what it is, if you can do it without losing your soul. It’s just not who I am. I’m an artist.”
I furrow my brow. “That’s what Wendy said?” I ask, feeling confused, startled even. “That she wants you to drop everything?” Didn’t she pay for your studio downtown so you could work uninterrupted and be inspired by the art scene in town? I think, trying to keep my face placid.
“Oh, no, no—that’s the whole thing, Celeste. She never actually says it. If she did, she’d have to hear me say no and face up to who I really am. Instead she just walks around in a constant state of disappointment. Apparently if she can be the perfect mother and perfect businesswoman and earn big bucks, the man she married should be able to do that too.”
I shake my head. He’s got it all wrong. I want to take him by the collar and say, That’s not what I want! I really want you to be happy. “I don’t think she’d really think that, would she?” I ask him, panic rising.
He looks at me. “Oh, Celeste. Of course that’s not how you’d treat me in her shoes, I know. A fellow creative wouldn’t squash my ambitions and leave me drained of all inspiration. That’s why it’s so hard for you to imagine anyone else doing it.”
I grimace, my face warring with the growing unrest in my stomach. This is so far from the truth, these things he’s saying. That I squash his ambitions? I have been his biggest cheerleader since before we were even married.
Why would he say such a thing to my next-door neighbor? And why does he think he knows so much about what Celeste would and wouldn’t do in the first place? How well does he even know her, when I could have sworn she said Seth didn’t know anyone was even living in her house until last week?
He takes another big gulp of his beer. It’s half-gone now, and my second sidecar is sitting there untouched. I stare at him, trying to hide all the chaos going on in my head. “You don’t know what I’d do, Seth,” I say at last. I think of all of Celeste’s disparaging comments about him. “If I were in your wife’s shoes, I might be even harder on you than she is.”
“I can’t believe that,” he says, and he takes a bit of Celeste’s curly brown hair and moves it out of my face in a move so stunningly intimate my throat tightens up. “Look at you. You’re the opposite of her. You curve where she’s all edges. You give where she takes. You’re gentle . . . and beautiful,” he tells me. That’s what he tells someone who he thinks isn’t his wife. “I refuse to believe that you’re shrill like her.”
I freeze up, ice on my skin, in my veins, coursing into my heart. “Wendy isn’t shrill,” I say.
“Spoken like someone who doesn’t live with her,” he replies.
“She’s busy,” I say, my voice tight, clipped. “She has a lot on her plate.” I can’t believe I even can talk right now.
“Her so-called plate is more like a trough,” he says. “It’s never enough. Before she gave her life over to that business, she was happy enough working in a normal job with normal hours. If she still did that, she’d have plenty of time for the kids. Maybe she’d even still have time for me.”
Happy enough? I think, growing colder and colder still. I worked with sexist idiots in that old HR job and watched them waste half their days on cat videos while I got paid eighty cents on the dollar and saw my female mentors get stuck in middle management.
I started this business because I dreamed of something bigger for myself. For all of us, the entire family. For him.
“What are you thinking?” he asks me now, because I have been silent for far too long. Seething. Roiling. Turning to stone. I take a drink of my sidecar to buy a moment. The lemon is too sour this time. Even this one sip seems to give me heartburn.
I shake my head. “I’m just listening. Taking in what you have to say,” I try.
He smiles a little sadly. “Of course you are, Celeste,” he says with confusing familiarity. “To be honest, real listening is something I can’t even recognize after all these years.”
Inside, I melt, fume, refreeze in cycles. Every word he says hurts me more, and every bone in my body wants to fight that pain, to bury it in anger, self-righteousness, indignation. How many times have I asked him how things are going, asked him how I can support his art? How many times have I suggested we take a quick weekend trip to see sculpture in other places, to meet with different gallery owners, to fill his well of creativity and inspiration? It feels like thousands. The answer has always been no.
Desperate, I try one more time. “Maybe she’s trying, but she still just doesn’t know what you need anymore,” I say, holding my hopes in my hands like a precious work of etched glass. “What would you want your wife to know, right now,” I ask him, “if you could be sure she’d really and truly listen?”
He leans forward, really close to me, as if he’s going to whisper in my ear, and sure enough, his voice is low and a little hoarse. “If I could tell her anything, and she’d just listen, like you are now, and not lecture me on productivity or positive work habits?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Tell me.” I am breathless, praying the next words are something, anything, we can use to save us.
He cocks his head closer and begins to reach for my jawline. It’s exactly as it was the first night we met, his hand cupping my cheek, pulling me in, a kiss just inches away. I am utterly lost in the memory of that kiss. That beautiful beginning. Until he speaks and I realize.
He’s not reaching out to kiss me.
“I’d tell her that there were women out there—beautiful, alluring, feminine women—right next door, for example, who understood me better than she ever could,” he says as he gazes into Celeste’s eyes.
I jump off the barstool backward, hopes broken, illusions shattered. “What the hell! Are you drunk?” I ask him.
As if that somehow matters.
He grimaces, pulls his entire body back a mile away from mine. “Ahh, sorry, sorry! Not drunk.” He holds up that beer, half-finished, as evidence. “Just read things wrong. I thought I’d noticed you . . . ah . . . noticing me around the neighborhood, you know?” He puts his hands up in surrender. “I thought we’d had a moment. Sorry about that, really. Misread the situation. No harm, no foul, right?”
“So much foul,” I blurt out. “So incredibly much foul! You have no idea.”
“Hold up, Celeste,” he calls as I start to make for the exit. “Hey! I’m sorry. This doesn’t have to be a thing,” he tries. I pause, one foot on the sidewalk, the other still under the pergola. “We’re both adults here. You were flirting with me. We know how things are.”
I look at him with hateful eyes, wishing like hell he could see who I am, see what he’s done. “To be honest, I didn’t know how things were, though, Seth. Not until right this second.”
Now I know.
And now here is one more thing I can never unknow. Like a worn knot that can take no more tugging, I feel the ties of my marriage come totally undone.