1. Out of the Past
The day it began was an autumn day, a Saturday afternoon in October.
I was sitting in a cushioned chair on the brick patio at the edge of my backyard. The air was clear and warm with a hint of chill in it. There was a wind off the lake across the way—thunderstorms coming, though they weren’t yet visible over the water.
I was looking down half an acre of grassy slope to where my two boys, Chad, ten, and Nathan, seven, were organizing some kind of Frisbee game around the swing set with some of their friends from the neighborhood. The boys were letting their three-year-old sister, Terry, tag along with them. I found this very heartwarming.
I was forty-five years old. The reedy figure of my youth was growing thicker at the chest and waist, but I was still trim enough. My once-sandy hair was thinner and darker, with a sprinkling of gray. My once-boyish face was not so boyish anymore, though I think it was what they used to call an honest face, smooth, clean, and open, the blue eyes bright.
My wife was in the kitchen making us some lemonade. My wife was named Cathy and I can’t say how much I loved her, not without sounding like a sentimental idiot, anyway. We had been together twelve years then, and I still sat up sometimes at night and watched her sleeping. Sometimes I woke her because I felt so grateful for her and so passionate I couldn’t help but trace her features with my fingertips. If this bugged the hell out of her, she never let on. But then, she was a cheerful and generous creature who would melt into lovemaking at a look or a touch.
We had a deal between us, Cathy and I. Our deal was simple. It was agreed to at the start in no uncertain terms.
When I first came to this town from New York seventeen years ago, I edited the local paper. I started out as city editor and was promoted to managing editor pretty quickly. The city had an insanely left-wing government at the time, and so, of course, it was spiraling into bankruptcy and chaos. There were high taxes supporting lavish payoffs to the unions, high crime because of lenient judges and tight restrictions on the police, and strangulation by regulation for any businessman stupid enough to hang around. It was a government like a garrulous fat man moralizing over a dinner for which he would never pick up the bill. I helped run them out of town. My paper printed story after story showing why every one of their policies would fail and proving it by showing where they had failed in the past. Plus we exposed the corrupt political machine churning away as usual under all the welfare. Within three years, the voters threw the bums out. The unions were crushed in the next round of contract negotiations. Taxes and useless programs were cut. Bad guys started going to prison. New businesses started popping up, people started making money again, and—surprise, surprise!—the government’s share of the profits brought it back from the brink despite the lower taxes. In short, the streets grew clean and the city grew rich, and my newspaper and I had a hand in it. For this, I can proudly say, I was roundly despised by some of the best-educated and wealthiest people in town. Something about my uncaring, insensitive editorial policy. Elites hate to be proved wrong by the common man.
My boss, however, liked me. The man who owned the paper was a billionaire land developer named Lawrence Tyner. He convinced me to leave the paper and come into his real-estate business. He taught me the ropes and helped me to invest in the city itself and the surrounding countryside. Ultimately, I made my fortune with him. And I met Cathy, who was one of his lawyers.
I didn’t think much of Cathy at first. I didn’t think she was all that pretty, for one thing. "Efficient-looking," I would’ve called her. She was short and full-figured, bordering on pudgy. She had medium-length brown hair and a sweet, friendly face. She always seemed harried, hurried, on the edge of panic, was always running off to some zoning-board hearing or other with her giant purse and a stack of folders under her arm. It made me nervous just to look at her.
Then one day around Christmas, her boyfriend broke up with her. I didn’t know this at the time. He lived in another city halfway across the state. He’d been stringing her along for years. He was one of those horrible mild guys. You know? Really earnest and caring all the time. Narrowed his eyes a lot and nodded without lowering his chin, his lips all pursed and serious. For about five years, he used this New Man sensitivity to manipulate Cathy into hanging around. Then he met someone he liked more, and Cathy was out.
Anyway, our office Christmas party came along. Everyone was drinking and singing and getting up to mischief and so forth. I wasn’t much of a drinker anymore, so after a while I took a stroll through the back offices to get some quiet. There was Cathy. She was sitting at her desk in the dark with a paper cup full of bourbon. She wasn’t drunk or anything. She was just sitting there, staring into space. I peeked my head in her door.
"Everything all right?" I asked.
"I hate my life," she told me. This was a woman I’d said maybe twenty sentences to in the year since I’d been working for Tyner. "I did everything right, everything my mother said. She was a feminist, my mother, very fierce. She said I could have it all. She told me what to do, and I did it. I got good grades, the best grades. I went to law school. I got a big job. I never depended on anyone. I even played softball when I was in high school. I hate softball."
This sounded like the start of a long evening. I went into her office and sat down across the desk from her.
"I have a sister," she said, gazing not at me but into the shadows. "She dropped out of college and got married. My parents went nuts, screamed and yelled. It was awful. My sister went to work as a secretary until she got pregnant. A secretary! Pregnant at twenty-two! And then she quit and stayed home and kept house! My mother nearly died. Now she has four children. Her husband owns a small construction company. He’s a great guy. Treats her well. Loves the kids. And my sister is the single happiest person I’ve ever met." She was silent a moment. Her eyes seemed to grope for something in the darkness. Then she said, "I want her life. My sister has the life I want. I know I’m supposed to want my life, but I don’t. I hate my life. I want hers."
It was a funny thing. Sitting still like that, staring into space like that, talking so quietly, she didn’t seem as frantic and efficient as usual. She seemed softer, more vulnerable and much prettier than I thought she was at first.
We dated for three months after that, but I think I knew I loved her that night. We started talking about getting married. I was living in a quaint old two-story shingle on River Street back then. We were downstairs in the kitchen there, sitting over sandwiches. I said to her, "Listen, this thing, this modern thing where, you know, marriage is a partnership and we’re equals, and we share housework and child care and all that—I’m not that guy. I’m, like, the because-I-said-so guy, the head-of-the-household guy, that’s me. Marry me and I call the shots. I’ll break my butt to make you happy, and I’ll try to give you the life you said you wanted. I don’t cheat, I don’t leave, and I am what I say I am. In return, I expect—I don’t know—sex, dinner, some peace and quiet now and then; maybe some affection, if you’ve got any. That’s the best I can do. What do you think?"
Without cracking a smile, she stuck her hand out to me across the table. "Deal," sh...