Kate concentrated on the jingling of the wind chimes. If she could hear the soft bell tones, their accidental melody, that meant she existed and was present on the solid earth, walking the pavement past the imposing Victorians. Alive in her body, here and now. She balled her hands into fists and then flexed, splaying her fingers wide. She raised her arms straight out from her sides like an airplane, then lowered them again slowly, feeling the stretch. If there were any spectators, they were hidden behind the drapes in their thick-walled homes.
When Henry was an infant, Kate would narrate their activities, something she had learned attentive parents did. On weekends she marched his modular stroller along the broad avenues and named things they saw: fence, tree, flag (displayed on holidays like the Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, she explained). Wind chimes in summer’s twilight, dancing on grand porches.
Now three, Henry had a strong vocabulary, Kate was convinced. Possibly an excellent one, though she didn’t know enough other children to compare. Just weeks after his third birthday, he stumbled over a word and acknowledged, “Oh, I misspoke.” She retold this moment often, with the hope that it reflected favorably on both of them. What a smart, bookish mother.
Kate turned toward the graveyard. Unsure whether she had the strength for hills, she kept a slow pace. It was one of Henry’s preschool days and there was nowhere she had to be.
A parked car beeped from across the street. Tessa was waving from the driver’s seat, oversized sunglasses hiding her freckles. Kate quickened her stride to approach the black Range Rover, switching on a smile and smoothing the waist of her tee across her hips. “Look who it is!” She glanced at the pre-K boys strapped in the backseat. “Hey, kiddos.”
“We’re heading to the park. Want to come and catch up?” Tessa had slid her window down and set her glasses on top of her confident pixie cut, the pulled-together mom. Her lips shimmered with nude gloss, the kind that was probably infused with mango seed butter. Tessa seemed to emit satisfaction with her life decisions.
Kate rifled through suitable responses. “Sounds fun, but I’m turning back soon to start dinner, if you can believe it. I actually found a meal online, bought ingredients and plan to cook them up.” The story wasn’t a total fabrication; it had happened already, yesterday. Tessa remembered Kate’s ambivalence toward the kitchen.
“Well, well, big news!” Tessa’s grin uncovered an endearing imperfection in her front tooth, a slight twist over which Kate would have run to the orthodontist years earlier. “Is this the new you? What’s the latest since you left work?” Kate knew there was no gossip or judgment behind Tessa’s words, no Mommy Wars undertones like she had observed in New York. Tessa was earnest and caring, her first friend in this strange land. She just didn’t know to ask beyond what Kate revealed.
“I’m really enjoying spending more time with Henry.” Kate gave her rote reply. “And I’ve been helping Robert on a few projects for the business.” She still couldn’t resist adding the postscript, even after all these months. As if being a full-time mother wasn’t the right answer, or a worthwhile choice.
They arranged a play date for next week and Kate continued trudging up the hill, watching for gaps in the sidewalk where elderly roots had broken through the cement, creating little sprained-ankle zones. She stomped hard in her sneakers for a few steps as the slope rose, noting a dim pain in the knee that had been repaired long ago. It usually signaled a turn in the seasons.
Two streets to the east was their “new” house. She and Robert had hardly unpacked before Kate decided she wanted a baby. She was forty at the time, so they began what they expected to be a lengthy process involving fertility specialists, clomiphene tablets and hormone shots. Instead, she got pregnant right away without any of that. They kissed and toasted to their fertile and virile old bodies, Kate lifting a champagne flute of flavored water.
It took time to dawn on her that nothing was the same. Gradually, Kate realized she was a lost tourist, frantically navigating hostile terrain: the demands of her promotion, which had prompted their relocation; a three-story Queen Anne in a midsize city instead of a shoebox in a dense urban core. Retail stores that stretched for miles and a confusing world related to navigating, insuring and maintaining a vehicle. Most jarringly, a son. An only child with her own only child, after four decades of a different kind of life.
Kate was aware of coming violently untethered, spinning as fast as a Cat 5 hurricane. Her senses fled. She lived in her head; every day was a year. The emergency plan was to place one swollen foot in front of the other. Breathe. Open mouth, take food. Care for baby. Find care for the baby. Drive to the office, lead meetings, manage your team of professionals. Then do it all again. And again. Repeat until you die.
In those first weeks and months after Henry’s birth, Kate clung to her Pema Chodron paperbacks like a life raft. She seized on the impossible notion of finding reassurance in the unknown, moving boldly through fear. Sitting with her discomfort rather than a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough. Pema was a cottage industry that had generated countless reflective quotes. “To live is to be willing to die over and over again.” “We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds.” Kate found solace, if grudgingly and temporarily, in universal struggle. Pema had saved her from drowning in her self-made perfect storm and guided her toward—wherever she was now. Dry land? Quicksand?
She huffed the final block and veered into the cemetery. Grandfather maples and oaks stood watch, casting into shadow the graveside sentries of carnations, roses and chrysanthemums. The quiet and the imagined past lives of the dead calmed her. Sometimes she pretended they were dispensing wisdom. Maybe they were. She passed a gravestone for a Mary Wirther, 1918-1957. When she died, this Mary wasn’t even as old as Kate was now. Her marker identified her as WIFE and MOTHER. Mary might have whispered that child-rearing was a woman’s primary God-given duty, one that should be prized above all else. Kate figured if Mary had needed to earn an income—if perhaps, tragically, she had become a young widow—she would have been a country schoolteacher, because that’s what there was. Even Kate’s mother, a generation later, trained to become a registered nurse because she didn’t care to be a teacher or a secretary, and that’s what there was.
The graveyard was still. Kate sank to the soft grass, lay flat on her back and squeezed her eyes shut until she felt a twitch in the vein that would give her a migraine later. She tried to empty her mind but instead replayed a holiday-party conversation with Robert’s niece, who had opted out of a promising career in finance to raise her daughter.
Kate had said, “I just don’t get why you want to walk away so soon. You love your job, you’re a star there. You know how hard it is to go back, right?” Kate couldn’t conceal her annoyance. Didn’t the girl appreciate all the sisters who had organized and consciousness-raised? “It’s all open to you. You can do whatever you want.”
Hypocrite, Kate berated herself now. It was a fine speech, delivered from her high horse before she’d even considered motherhood herself. Besides, women’s lib had happened before her time. She was parroting bumper stickers from the seventies.
Kate had read compassion in the niece’s expression, which cut more deeply than anger. “Kate, I hear you, I really do. I don’t disagree with any of that. I’m just doing what I think will make me happy right now. That’s my choice, and I’m grateful to have it.” And you’re lucky to be so goddamned sure of yourself, Kate thought.
Checking her phone, she confirmed that, as usual, there wasn’t time to do anything very ambitious before collecting Henry. Was this how she was going to spend her hard-fought free time? Kate had negotiated with Robert for a full year before he agreed to take the financial hit for her to resign. It was a significant household commitment. Kate earned the fatter paycheck. She was still fiercely protecting her secret: she had wanted to quit mostly because she hated her job and her life here, and a little because she didn’t want to miss more of Henry’s early years. On some days those proportions had been reversed, she supposed. It was hard to untangle the threads of despair. Still, Kate saw a few issues clearly: She had worked in her field long enough; she was through. This town was a throwback to an era of “traditional values” and she didn’t know how to deal with it. She was indeed happier being with Henry more often, but she would not choose to care for him all day, every day.
Kate considered how they might occupy themselves after school. She was counting on a low-key afternoon. She’d see what Henry thought of building a tower of blocks on the floor. The latest medication was making her even more lethargic than usual. She would tell her shrink tomorrow about this walk, how she got some fresh air and spent time with friends.
When they journeyed out as a family, Kate and Robert were occasionally mistaken for Henry’s grandparents. It was the kind of place where kids graduated from high school and produced more kids. The number of children was valuable social currency. Mary Wirther surely thrived here.
The elderly strawberry vendor greeted them with a nod at the Saturday farmers market. “Babysitting today, folks?” His beard was long and thick despite the relentless heat. Underneath the folding table, Henry poked at the man’s weathered brown boots with a stick.
Kate believed she could pass for late thirties, attractive enough despite the widening of her thighs and middle. She put on her face, highlighted her big chestnut hair every three months and shopped for accessible luxury brands, as though the latest Tory Burch bag were a shield against age and girth. Making no inner promises to maintain these efforts forever seemed to ease the strain of them. Robert, on the other hand, had begun graying early and in his mid-forties had a thick head of silver hair. His face was lined with years of imported beer and disregard for sunscreen.
“He’s our son, so I guess we’re parenting today!” Robert boomed with an affable smile. “We’re old, we started late!” he overshared. Kate murmured, “You know, in other places...” but stopped. She still struggled not to overreact to the social mores.
She’d handled the playground situation last week with admirable restraint. A pony-tailed mom had gestured to Henry’s pink racer with training wheels: “What kind of bike is that for a boy?” Henry was riding circles on the basketball court. She and Kate could see his Minnie Mouse helmet bobbing along.
“Well, he loves pink, which is normal for little kids, and we don’t believe in prescribing gender roles.” Kate practiced sounding casual in her self-righteousness. “He doesn’t need to know society has arbitrary color and toy preferences for boys and girls.” She tried a little laugh.
The other mom arched her penciled eyebrows, her face untouched by the accumulation of much life experience. She spoke in the leisurely cadence Kate had come to expect. “Well, I guess I just believe it’s my job to teach my boys to play with trucks and my girls to play with dolls.” Kate had the impression that the woman, neither friendly nor hostile, was explaining to an alien that the sky was blue.
Silently, Kate said, “And that’s why this place is so backwards,” but out loud chirped, “Well, looks like we disagree!” She marveled—not for the first time—at the matter-of-fact delivery of opinions so antithetical to her own. She wanted to punch the mom in her youthful jaw.
After Henry’s bedtime, a conversation about where to settle down could erupt at any moment.
“I just don’t believe there’s not another place that would be a better fit for us,” Kate would begin, innocently, resting her legs on the modernist coffee table that clashed with the house’s architectural style. She had adored the flea market treasure in their old apartment.
“So, tell me where,” Robert would counter. “Where is this magical place that has everything we have here? Good for kids, the friends we’ve already made, low cost of living. I’ve got a great set-up for work.”
That was the trouble. So far, she’d failed to find a winning alternative. By rights, Kate’s longtime friend Sarah and her husband ought to have it worse. He was a Division III college football coach, and Sarah needed to live in a medium city that offered a lively arts scene and lots of advertising jobs and was located near a major airport. But even their list of mutually agreeable cities varied between three and eight. Kate was stuck at one.
She was also pitted against Robert’s aggressive optimism. Robert had met plenty of terrific people, like he always did, and found a great deal to appreciate about the area. He believed if Kate were so affronted by the cultural norms, she should take action. Work the problem.
Kate, with a sharp intake of breath, would start in. “Hold on, let me get the Pride Center on the phone! Oh, wait, we don’t have one here. How about a working women’s group…nope, not that, either.” Crestfallen, her head would drop. Robert, smirking in his recliner and without looking up from his laptop, would bellow, “Be the change!” And point out that, in fact, she was no longer a working woman. They rarely went off script, and an edge had crept into their banter.
The next time they ate pork loin and asparagus al fresco, Robert opened their favorite bottle of Cabernet, which they ordered by the case. Kate admired, again, the multicolored slate pavers she had eventually chosen for the patio, still pleased with this particular trapping of adulthood.
Robert wasn’t smiling. “I know it’s been tough on you, hon. We’ve both been through a lot.” He used his deep, serious voice. “But I really need you to start making more of an effort. I’m afraid Henry picks up on your negative vibes. And I don’t love not knowing what I’m coming home to at night.” He meant her prickly moods. Left unsaid was the pervasive undercurrent of doom that threatened Kate’s delicate emotional tightrope walk. Another slip and she couldn’t necessarily count on a net. “Honestly, I don’t even think it’s about the map anymore. We could be anywhere.”
Kate took a generous sip and savored the wine in her mouth, staring out past the boxwood hedge into the thicket of spruces. They sat in silence before Kate shrugged and met Robert’s uncommonly blue eyes. She leaned back in the deck chair and crossed her arms.
After failing twice a week, since her last day at work, to move the four reusable grocery bags from the pantry in the kitchen to the Prius in the garage, Kate remembered. She further remembered to carry the bags from the car into the supermarket and knew instantly her self-reward would be a celebrity tabloid magazine at the checkout counter.
She stood in the organic aisle, idly scrunching the straps of the totes into satisfying wads, the sacks resting in the cart’s child carrier. She wrapped some fabric from one handle around her index finger until it started to turn a little purple. Just for a second. Now scan the yogurts. Kate was sure she had a flavor preference. Which was the one Henry didn’t like? Where were the brands their nanny used to buy, again—and was the nanny still available?
On a rare overcast morning, Kate deposited Henry at preschool and drove to her favorite secondhand shop, Everything Old is New Again! for something to do. She was examining mid-century end tables, searching her memory for floor space in the basement, when she got a call in her brain, as Henry liked to say. She exited the store and walked two doors down to visit one of the free newspapers.
The editor, Nadine, wore a long gray braid and red horn-rimmed glasses. They talked in a corner of “the newsroom,” a cluttered storefront the size of a nail salon with six desks and a copier.
“Tell me about yourself!” Nadine served them mint tea in wide earthen mugs. Kate felt the warmth radiating from her like a physical force, the older woman’s eyes locked on hers and reacting in exaggerated enthusiasm and sympathy to Kate’s story. Kate spoke honestly about her struggles. It flashed through her mind that she wished Nadine were her mother. Were strength and authenticity made of reflective glass, like a mirror? Mary Wirther must have been composed of such heady particles.
Kate concluded, fingering the jade necklace that she rarely removed. “I had a successful career that I enjoyed, and I did a fair amount of writing and editing. I could bring you a fresh pair of eyes while I get to know the community better.”
Nadine was nodding. She extracted a manila folder from one of the piles on her desk and pulled out a single sheet.
“It’s so funny how the Lord works,” she began. Kate remained impassive. “We haven’t had a columnist around here for a while. So, I talked to the others and we decided to give it another shot.” She passed the piece of paper to Kate. “We’ve been working up this job description. It’s just part-time. Why don’t you write a couple samples and we’ll see where we’re at?”
In a cartoon bubble above her head, Kate envisioned stacks of bylined clips broadcasting her common-sense worldview. They were brilliantly persuasive and respectful. She was changing minds throughout the kingdom, one idea at a time.
Thanking Nadine, she said she’d consider it and wandered back to the car. She switched on the classic rock station and performed a few deep breathing exercises. Kate thought about reading the latest issue of the paper, then decided to do so when she got home; or in the evening. Next week, at the latest.
They were playing firefighters, wielding vacuum cleaner attachments, when Henry looked over at Kate and deployed his kid superpower: Shy, unconditional devotion shone from his eyes, which were so like hers. An ironclad certainty that she was his and would protect him from harm. She felt the gut-punch reverberate through her whole body. Her fingertips tingled, and a little shot of adrenaline coursed through her abdomen.
“My Boo, how much do I love you?” She started kissing noisily on his soft cheek, triggering the staccato giggle she and Robert never tired of hearing. “I love you even more than you love me!” Kate didn’t know where he would have learned this phrase or if he’d come up with it on his own. She told him, “We love each other billions and gazillions!” Kate never questioned her decision to take a few years out of the full-time workforce, even when Henry was being a pain in the ass—throwing a textbook, fist-pounding tantrum or answering every command with the maddening, “I won’t do it.” In moments like these, accepting on a visceral level the love of her son, she summoned Pema and strove to be consciously grateful. Mindful in the moment.
Mindfulness had come freely when they went wading in the ravine’s creek yesterday. The late afternoon light was soft, Henry’s little face poised inches above the shoreline excursion of a snail. Kate felt the tension in her shoulders release. She rested on a boulder by the water’s edge, with Henry at a safe depth, and took mental snapshots of her sweet, beautiful child in nature.
She free associated some positives about their new home, which wasn’t so new anymore. A handful of friends in their tree-lined neighborhood near the modest college—good people, like Tessa. Lots of other good people. Gorgeous countryside that was green year-round and dotted with waterfalls, hot springs, caverns and scenic lookouts. An amazing modern library that Kate could spend hours in, on school days, if she decided to do something pleasurable for herself. The tempo: It was surprisingly easy to get used to.
At the children’s museum, Kate shot a text to Sarah while Henry was rolling marbles down a chute on a magnetized wall. They had nurtured their friendship through half a dozen moves over twenty years. Sarah was an aficionado of local color.
Kate typed the message in her careful, non-millennial prose style. “Chatty 7-year-old at museum apropos of nothing: do you know what My Good Video Angel is? No. This company where they take all the bad words in movies and bleep them out.”
She saw that Sarah was writing a response. “Jesus H. Christ.”
Everyone was abuzz about the regional art fair. The town was hosting this year, and vendors were traveling hundreds of miles to show their work. Kate took Henry out of preschool on a Friday and Robert skipped work so they could avoid the weekend crush.
“Mama, look!” Henry had spotted the kids’ area, a mercifully shaded section of matted grass cordoned off at the north end of the square.
“Why don’t you look around and I’ll take Boo over there and find some ice cream.” Robert was being helpful. Kate hoped it lasted through Henry’s meltdown after he got hot, tired, hungry and over-stimulated.
She meandered through an endless variety of blown glass vases, as well as some decent paintings and mosaics. She was moved by an aching black-and-white photographic series featuring the Jasmine River and the survivors after the flood. The market was crowded enough that she could browse without interacting with the sellers, saving herself the impulse to feign interest in a purchase just to be polite.
Kate lingered over a charcoal nude, a Rubenesque woman perched on the side of a tousled bed pulling on stockings. A classic; or disappointingly unoriginal. Kate was feeling uncharitable toward the drawing when the artist finished with a young couple and moved toward her. He was roughly her height, average, and wore a gray tank top with slouchy black jeans. His salt-and-pepper mustache hid his upper lip and his shoulder-length dark hair was tucked behind his ears. A diamondback tattoo slithered between his left wrist and elbow. There was something about that tat. She stole glances at it as he approached.
“Katie.” He seemed confident of their acquaintance. Kate removed her shades and slipped them into the outer pocket of her enormous bag. She was conscious of the man’s appraisal while she tried to place him. Maybe he looked a little familiar, she couldn’t tell.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. His closed-mouthed smile was careful. “You live around here now?” She stalled for a beat, taking in the other art hanging on the walls of his booth.
When Kate spotted the picture of an immense faded yellow farmhouse, she drew a quick, involuntary breath and immediately felt like she couldn’t catch another one. The house was framed by craggy snow-topped mountains; violet wildflowers populated the foreground. A few red Adirondack chairs were visible on the front porch. Kate knew if she looked closely she would find three spindles missing from the porch’s unpainted wooden railing.
“Wow, nice to see you!” The words tumbled over one another. “Yeah, we moved out here about, I don’t know, two or three or four years ago maybe. Me and my husband. We had a baby. Have a baby.” She felt the burn spread across both cheeks.
Now the artist smiled broadly. His teeth were due for a cleaning. “How about that. Many congratulations, my dear. I hope you found what you were looking for.” This struck Kate as overly familiar, but then the guy had been around back then. Not a lot, but enough. He was a minor character from the time when she was… involved with his buddy, Luke.
Kate pictured them all sitting around the fire behind the ramshackle building. Sculptors and banjo players, ancient hippies, carpenters and coders, makers of all stripes. She didn’t try to learn their names or really anything else. The house belonged to a relative of one of them, she thought, or maybe she had just assumed. Luke was the kingpin, their common denominator. He sat on a stump, Kate on the hard dirt, holding her close while they passed a joint around the circle. The splif was tiny in Luke’s tanned, rough hand. Kate studied the way everyone inhaled and held the smoke, paid close attention to their slang. She left her shoes inside, like they did—so hip and carefree, with her dirty feet! Sometimes she and Luke wore wireless headphones and danced in the fields to their own private, silent disco, laughing like maniacs. Kate needed pulls from the silver flask to relax into it, but Luke was a kind, loving host. Her kind of sexy. When her universe shrank to those crazy moonlit nights with Luke and his rotating cast of creative loners, she somehow felt a deep peace she hadn’t known before or since. She also remembered that Luke was perpetually under-employed. He couldn’t qualify for a bank loan and essentially lived off the grid.
Her other life. Had it been other, or was now other? She sensed Mary Wirther over her shoulder, breathing an answer.
Kate stood glistening in the sun, holding the guy’s eye contact with some effort. She dug her fingernails into her palms and shifted from left foot to right, feeling the trickle of sweat behind her knees. The relief she felt at having chosen the strappy red and orange sundress over the khaki shorts this morning was shameful and exhilarating.
“Thanks, man,” she answered him, the “man” slipping out before she realized it. “Things are good. I’m not working anymore, just hanging out with my son.” The crew had given her a lot of grief for serving her corporate overlords. She was a loveable square in their world.
“So awesome. I’m Randy, by the way,” he reminded her. Kate approved of this mannerly reintroduction, his handling of the imbalance between what each seemed to remember about the other. Kate had been Luke’s lady, when she was around. It made sense the others would know her.
Randy didn’t reach for an awkward hug but placed one hand lightly on Kate’s forearm. Her fingers were clasped together while she tried not to pick at her cuticles. Randy was examining Kate with such empathy, as if he’d already viewed every scene in her life since she abruptly disappeared years before. Her questioning and doubts; searching everywhere for herself. The Troubles. Kate smelled stale tobacco in Randy’s hair.
“Not sure if you’re in touch with any of the gang, but Luke’s doing good,” he volunteered quietly, his hazel eyes studying hers. When his gaze fell to the jade necklace and jumped back to her face, he might as well have stripped her naked.
Kate was suddenly a flurry. She retrieved and retreated behind her sunglasses, fluffed her long bangs into place and nodded too many times as she spoke. “You know, I’m totally late meeting my family for lunch. So great to run into you, I love your work!” Three lies.
Heart thumping in her ears, she spun around and was not quite out of range when Randy added, “I’ll tell Luke you stopped by.”
Robert buckled Henry into his car seat and set him up with Mary Poppins on the tablet, adjusted to a tolerable volume. He push-started the engine and texted Kate. “You up?” He had covered a small distance, long enough for Henry to nod into his afternoon nap, when his phone buzzed. “Yes.”
That was a good sign. Kate might already be showered and dressed; although, probably not. He couldn’t tell if it was another headache that had felled her this time. Maybe residual discomfort from her bizarre spell at the festival, or just her regular ennui. He was too weary to entertain other options. His fun, talented, trying wife. When they met, at a charity fundraiser, he’d been drawn to her urbane confidence, the exotic adventures she’d taken and the languages she spoke. His exurban upbringing and business degree were comparatively mundane. They started traveling together. They hiked the Great Wall, gawked at the Taj Mahal, even lived in Paris for a year. It was only recently, “settled,” that he’d seen his wife falter. Robert worried Kate was losing her hold on things, or he was losing her, in a way he couldn’t articulate. Someone was losing.
After an hour Henry awoke, as though on a timer, and Robert pulled into the driveway like a pro. He was surprised to see Kate sitting out front with a book. He wondered if it was the Buddhist one that she consulted the way people here carried the Bible.
“She lives!” Robert greeted his wife. Henry ran and curled up in Kate’s lap. Robert dropped next to them on the outdoor love seat that he hated because it was wicker. In their unspoken game of marital compromise, the love seat point had been awarded to Kate. For a long time, their scorecard had been evenly balanced, give or take, but Robert wasn’t sure where they stood now.
“How was the aquarium?” Kate asked with a yawn. Her voice sounded normal. She was in clean clothes, as far as he could tell. A blueberry yogurt container was half-finished on the cafe table. He set the sweating plastic cup next to it.
“It was cool, right, buddy? Henry fondled a starfish. How’re you?” Robert leaned in for a peck.
Kate responded with a deep kiss, and Robert wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. She socked him on the bicep. “I think I’m turning the corner, actually. Thanks for the coffee.”
She took a sip of her drink, jiggling the half-melted ice cubes. Henry wriggled down and ran to his three-wheeled scooter, picking it up from the front walk. Robert rubbed his thumb over the top of Kate’s hand, back and forth like a windshield wiper.