The roast was in the oven and, after the news, he promised himself, he would boil water for the instant mashed potatoes and frozen mixed vegetables so dinner would be ready when Shelby came home. Shelby had planned for Nick to spend the day painting the shutters, raking the leaves and fixing the broken tile in the bathroom. Like he did every day since beginning his first novel three years ago, Nick had spent the day waiting to be published.
Later, when Shelby came home sullen and sweaty from work, Nick had been on the couch, feet propped up, asleep, as he’d been all afternoon. Nick never knew when to expect Shelby. He hated after-hours staff meetings, so unpredictable.
“Did you get the mail.” Not a question, but an affirmation of the suspicion that Nick had been in this house, in this position, all day. If he had sent off his manuscript like he said he had, of course he would have gotten the mail. He would have rushed to tear the rejection letter from its gummy envelope, absorbed every word, thrown the crumpled letter in the waste basket, and whittled the rest of the day away sulking on the couch. Getting the mail was only a formality.
She hadn’t asked him how his book was going, or if he’d heard back from any of the twenty five agents he had told her he’d sent his manuscript to. What do you think I do all day? He wanted to ask her, to demand an answer. But the cool stare, not at him but at the couch –as if it, not he, had let her down and the toneless, question, the accusation—had scared him.
Shelby forgave him between bites of tender roast beef and mouthfuls of buttery mashed potatoes and vegetables—over buttered the way she liked to compensate for their being instant and frozen. She had accepted dinner as a domesticated apology, and so decided to be cordial—perhaps even optimistic—for now.
“We should plan a vacation soon, like the ones we used to take,” she said and meant.
“Before I stopped working?”
He was defensive a lot lately, she thought, wiping her mouth delicately before taking a long sip of wine. “Remember hopping in the car, not caring where we ended up? Nothing planned, just unadulterated fun,” she sighed deeply, remembering.
“That reminds me, Dillon called.”
It was a lie. Nick knew Shelby wouldn’t believe he’d just remembered the son of a bitch calling his house, asking for his wife as if he didn’t know why the son of a bitch was calling in the first place. He hated pretending not to know Dillon wanted to sleep with Shelby. He hated the way Dillon didn’t even try to hide it. Nick wondered how Shelby didn’t know, didn’t feel the son of the bitch coming on to her. Unless she did know, he thought before stabbing a tiny pea with a salad fork.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to be.
When they married five years ago, Shelby had accepted the fact that Nick’s dreams of becoming a full-time writer would always be supplemented by the reality of his having a full-time job. Nick had reached no such conclusion. Ever since quitting his job over a year ago, he waited word after word to finish a novel with a first line he was too afraid to write: the story of their lives. Shelby didn’t plot well. Nick didn’t like Shelby on the page. He had changed her name, her career, her location. The only way the story worked was without her in it. And so, he wouldn’t write it.
“What did he say?” She hated hiding her affair. She hated not being able to say, “I’m having an affair.” She wanted to punish Nick for making her sleep with Dillon in the first place. If he had been a writer and she Mrs. Shelby Kennedy Whitby, wife of Nick Whitby, writer; she wouldn’t have had the affair. She wouldn’t have needed to. If he had been driven enough to become what he had promised her—someone—she wouldn’t have been driven to someone else. Well, maybe not driven, she thought. Shelby fantasized about confessing. Instead, she forced herself to swallow bite after bite and prayed she wouldn’t throw up.
“He asked about my book,” Nick answered, pushing his plate away and grimacing as if the trail of peas tumbling from his plate was as distasteful as the broken circle of condensation, a broken wedding ring, he thought, that lay stark where his plate should have been.
“Why do you do that?” She later asked, breathless. Shelby had raced from the house on the pretense of a barely plausible, highly unverifiable office emergency.
“Because I can,” Dillon said with the confidence of a man who had earned the respect and admiration of the award-winning staff of the corporation he headed. He was right. Under normal circumstances, Dillon would expect his corporate staff to be available, on call, at all times. If there was an emergency, and you were the best person to take care of it, specialist or not, you could expect Dillon to contact you—and Dillon expected you to come.
This should be different. Shelby wasn’t corporate and this wasn’t the windowed-corner office of a multi-billion dollar facility. This was a penthouse apartment overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was just the sort of place Shelby had envisioned when she thought of herself having an affair. Dillon was just the sort of man she imagined herself with. He was everything Nick could have been. She didn’t mind that Dillon was manipulative and egotistical; she wasn’t trying to be his wife, just his—it never sounded right when she thought of what she was to him, so she seldom did. That was for other people to wonder. And, they did. Her colleagues wondered, Dillon’s partners wondered. With Shelby’s golden, brown skin; long legs; and high cheek bones, people were pretty sure they knew what Dillon and Shelby were doing. But few people knew exactly what it was or what to call it. Shelby knew that whatever she had with Dillon was not love, and if it was, she wasn’t in it.
Shelby had expected an affair to be liberating. Nick had expected an affair to be something other people had.
Hours later, Shelby’s skin still tingled wherever Dillon had touched it. Tonight there had been the same sense of urgency that had inebriated Shelby the first time she’d slept with Dillon almost a year ago. It lasted through the hours they lay together, the hour washing one another in the shower, and the half-hour drive home alone. She felt his touch as she pulled into the driveway, crept in through the front door, and tiptoed past the sofa. Her skin cooled as she slid between warm sheets.
“I’m sorry for letting you down, honey,” Nick whispered, one hand sliding to cup her breast, the other timidly touching her inner thigh, the soft patch of skin still scorched by Dillon’s touch.
To Nick, Shelby’s gasp sounded like pleasure. Shelby, traces of Dillon dotting her flesh, stared blindly at the wall behind Nick’s head, marveling that her body could respond to him, in awe of its betrayal.
Shelby spent the next day forcing Nick to write. She lay on the couch, with a book in her lap, her cell phone cradled against her shoulder, while Nick sat at her feet, pecking belligerently on his laptop.
“Why don’t you come home for awhile?” her mother asked from her perch in New Jersey, 125 miles away.
“I can’t just pick up and go any time I want,” Shelby explained while wondering why she bothered to call.
“It’s not like you have kids to think about, a dog, any sort of responsibility.” Her mother had made this same argument any number of times for any number of reasons: Why don’t you move back to New Jersey? Why don’t you visit for the holidays? Why don’t you go on a couple’s retreat? Why don’t you come home until he finishes the book? But this time was different. “I don’t see why you don’t just leave him. If it’s obvious to me you don’t want to be there…”
“His book is coming along, mother.”
“I see.” To Shelby’s mother that was as good as admitting an affair—something she’d never do, though she’d had a few.
“I have a job, mother. It’s not like I can pick up and just go where I want to go.”
“That’s right; there are no jobs in Jersey.”
The volume on her cell phone was set so low Shelby could barely hear. Still she wasn’t certain snatches of conversation hadn’t penetrated Nick’s sudden writing euphoria.
“He’s right there, isn’t he?”
Shelby pretended to read for an hour after Nick pretended to write. She fidgeted while Nick’s head rested heavily against her thigh, his cropped hair pricking her flesh. Finally, she extracted herself from the couch to find somewhere to be alone. In the shower, hot water cleansing raw wounds, Shelby wondered at the choices she’d made and where they would lead her.
The quickest way to reach success is to marry it; she had thought when she didn’t make VP five years ago. And so, she’d say yes to Nick. Nick was not a writer: Nick was barely even writing. She had known this for a while. It wasn’t until other people noticed it that it had begun to bother her. So she slowly adjusted her thinking. The quickest way to reach success is to sleep with it. And so, a year ago she had said yes to Dillon. But these last few months she had been thinking, a lot, and fallen in love with her body, with herself, again. She had been applying for new positions. She had been writing, exploring. The quickest way to reach success is to work for it. A few days ago, Shelby had been offered a VP position for a company half way around the country. Today, she said yes.
“I’m having an affair.”
“What’d you say, honey?” Nick had slipped into the bathroom and quietly sat on the closed toilet lid watching Shelby’s silhouette lather and foam.
Sheltered behind a thin, shower curtain, Shelby closed her eyes, rested her wet hair along the cool shower tile and imagined the next ten minutes of her life.
I don’t love you, Shelby imagined herself saying.
Let’s make this work, Nick imagined his reply.
I want a divorce, she mouthed.
Let’s make this work, he mouthed.
I’m having an affair, she whispered.
Let’s make this work, he whispered.
Four words, ten minutes, one choice that could plot the rest of their lives.
Shelby turned off the water.
“We need to talk.”