This is an excerpt from my second Kensington novel, FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE (a modern fairy tale about three women, three marriages and what happens when -- a decade or two after the Happily Ever After -- the women begin to ask themselves if they married the right man) copyright 2010 by Marilyn Brant. Hope you enjoy!
CHAPTER ONE: Once Upon a Time...
Friday, September 3
They met on Friday mornings at nine because that was the time when Tamara’s husband left for his law firm, when Bridget’s kids were safely in school and when Jennifer told everybody she had yoga.
Their meeting place of choice was always the Indigo Moon Café, on account of those signature butter-grilled double-chocolate-chip muffins and the mocha lattes.
Really, there was no second choice.
There’d been that one unfortunate February when the Indigo Moon’s owners, in an unnecessary display of prosperity and industriousness, remodeled the café’s interior (well, in their defense, there had been a regrettable plumbing incident the week prior), and the ladies were forced to meet at Bernie’s Java Hut on Highway 83 with those dreadful green vinyl seats and weak espressos instead. They tried to forget about that month.
But, on this particularly bright September morning, they sat in a corner booth at their favorite Chicago-area coffeehouse and diner—a familiar trio of married, forty-something, suburban moms in the eyes of the Glendale Grove locals—and settled into the comfort of a well-worn discussion: the demanding nature of their spouses and/or children and the difficulty in keeping their nearest and dearest happy.
Of course, like three very different sisters in an Oxygen Network production of a Grimm’s fairy tale, this morphed into an exhibit of markedly divergent mind-sets.
“Oh, please. You know he’s an insensitive prick half the time and a workaholic the other half,” Tamara ranted openly when asked about what had been going on with her lawyer husband. “He’s off on one trip or another, home just long enough to get laid, and then he’s flying out somewhere else a week later.” She snapped shut the café menu and huffed. “If it weren’t for the makeup flowers and the makeup sex, I’d have kicked his ass to the curb years ago.”
A blatant lie, incidentally. Tamara—unusually silent yet firm on this point—believed in marriage for life. And, also, she’d exaggerated the amount of makeup sex.
Bridget, keeping her usual disconcerted eye on her audience and feeling stabs of residual Catholic guilt for complaining at all, nevertheless had to get her family grumbles off her chest. “The kids are out of control,” she admitted to her friends. “They’re just at that age. And Graham always leaves it up to me to rein them in. It’s exhausting.”
The natural abstainer of the group, the quiet chameleon and the one whose knee-jerk response to any question could be described as committedly noncommittal, still contributed to the party line in her own way. “Nothing changes,” Jennifer remarked faintly. “Nothing.”
Their other-centric behavior at home (even acknowledging that their manner of servitude took different forms) had been an undercurrent in all their lives. It ran below the daily ticker tape of familial activity like an obligatory, perfunctory mechanism. Each had spent years doing little else, and almost as many repressing her resentment.
Of course, the suburban residents nearby would not have guessed this. They didn’t know these women, however dissimilar in temperament and appearance, had long ago agreed the world should be wary of pleasers who’d been burnt out by a lifetime of catering to others. But, even had they been privy to the ladies’ café conversations (which they most assuredly were not), they would’ve assumed if anyone were to bring up the subject of infidelity it would’ve been Tamara.
Auburn-haired by nature and toned from countless health club sets of tennis, she’d been described as “brash” and “outspoken” more times in her forty-three years than Hugh Jackman had been declared “handsome” or Daniel Craig “smoldering.” Should anyone in their group be accused of saying or doing the most outrageous things, Tamara would be the obvious choice.
But in that, too, curious onlookers would’ve been more mistaken than not.
Upon the arrival of her tall mocha-hazelnut latte with a double shot of espresso and extra whipped cream, Tamara merely launched into a chat about the start of the school year.
“Benji says he’s ‘super stoked’ about college. The UT campus is ‘really sick,’ which is apparently a good thing, and the city of Austin is ‘un-fracking-believably cool,’ so he’s happy.” She stirred her coffee with a couple of rough, almost angry swirls and took a few sustaining breaths. “He’s been there all of two weeks and he’s already dropping ‘y’all’ into his conversation like some fresh-off-the-ranch Texas cowboy. I hate it.”
Her friends knew how much she despised her husband’s frequent work absences, but now her son was gone as well. Although Tamara didn’t say it aloud, she’d never felt more alone. “I miss my baby boy,” she murmured.
“Your baby boy is going to be nineteen at the end of the month,” Bridget said gently, already three-quarters finished with her skim half-caf vanilla-mocha latte sprinkled with a generous dash of cinnamon. She struggled to show better portion control with her muffin but still nibbled nervously on a corner of it. “It’s gotta be hard to let him go, though.” Especially since he’s your only child, Bridget added to herself, but she tactfully avoided saying this aloud.
Bridget had three children versus Jennifer’s two and Tamara’s one. But, despite her thrill in seeing her youngest off to school full time this year (first grade!), Bridget worried more than any of them that, in the end, Empty Nest Syndrome might hit her hardest.
“Yeah,” Tamara said. “His birthday’s on September twenty-third. Same as the autumnal equinox. The day my world shifted on its axis and everything became simultaneously aligned and imbalanced, you know?”
Bridget replied, “I know,” although she suspected Tamara was being a bit dramatic. But, again, when a woman had just one kid she could be inclined toward overfocusing.
Jennifer, as usual, made few comments and none after this exchange. She nodded, however, sipped her small mocha-soy latte made with a squirt of coconut syrup and a hint of nutmeg (a combination from which she never deviated) and regarded the other two with an occasional distracted glance.
She’d been friends with the others for more than four years— ever since her younger daughter and Bridget’s oldest were together in summer cheerleading camp and Tamara, who knew Bridget from some community organization or other, helped them secure the park district gym for their practices. Of course, this was followed by infinite library and school district fund-raising events, where they’d been thrown in each other’s paths often enough to create a durable bond. Soon the trio had their weekly coffee date in place—an almost unbreakable commitment—which nowadays, because of conflicting schedules, was usually the only time they got together.
Thus, having witnessed it for years, Bridget and Tamara were well acquainted with Jennifer’s predisposition toward silence. They understood she wasn’t angry with them or even bored. But she’d been slipping into her reflexive introversion more readily than usual over the past three weeks, and Tamara had had quite enough of not getting Jennifer’s full attention.
“Something going on with you, Jennifer?” Tamara asked, noting the disturbing strands of gray competing with the streaks of blond in Jennifer’s hair. Tamara tagged this stylistic lapse as a form of neglect, feeling justified in her tough-love approach since, clearly, Jennifer’s distress had taken a physical turn.
Jennifer shrugged and took another sip of her coffee.
But Tamara persisted. “You’re not pregnant, are you?” She realized Jennifer was forty-one and her daughters both teens, but who knew these days? Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Lisa Marie Presley ... they’d popped out their babies at whatever-the-hell age they wanted.
Jennifer’s blue-green eyes flew open and Bridget had to cough down half a gulp of vanilla-mocha.
“N-No,” Jennifer managed to reply, but even Bridget recognized the trepidation with which their friend answered.
“Have you, uh, gotten any new e-mails?” Bridget asked carefully.
After a long pause during which, in unison, they watched their waitress scurry into the kitchen and out of earshot, Jennifer confessed, “Yes,” her tone startling in its quiet intensity.
Tamara raised her coffee mug in a mock toast and beamed. “Whoo-hoo! Here’s to your old boyfriend. What’s the hottie got to say this time?”
“Shhh,” Bridget hissed, scanning the room for listeners.
“What?” Tamara rolled her deep brown eyes. “We’re the only ones in this section—nobody’ll hear. And, besides, it’s not like she’s gonna do anything with lover-boy David anyway.” Tamara turned to Jennifer. “Are you?”
Based on what Tamara knew, Jennifer had only received three e-mails from her college ex, which she always answered dutifully and overpolitely. Never a hint of impropriety. So, Tamara considered Bridget’s insistence on discretion rather extreme.
“Um. Probably not.” Jennifer twisted the corner of her brown paper napkin and dabbed at a coffee droplet on the table.
Tamara blinked at her. “Probably not? Are you fucking kidding me? You’re thinking of cheating?”
“Probably not,” Jennifer repeated, a tiny smile of the wry variety rising one millimeter—maybe two—at the edges of her mouth.
Bridget giggled uneasily.
Tamara laughed aloud, unwilling to take Jennifer’s claim with any seriousness.
Then the three of them—an unspoken question thickening the air—sat in silence for a full thirty seconds, considering who they’d say “probably not” to ... if ever propositioned.
David had been the love of Jennifer’s life, The One for her, or so she’d been convinced in college. They were of a particular type: techie geeks who’d found their twin. A type not shared by her poetry-writing, Spanish-language-teaching husband, Michael, a kind man but one who’d never spoken Jennifer’s dialect.
Jennifer hadn’t told anyone, not even her friends, about the increasingly intimate nature of her e-mail exchanges with David. She’d been careful in her replies, but there were subtleties in his responses—and in her own—others wouldn’t pick up on. A suggestiveness hidden in private code. This secrecy made the tension and excitement inside her grow large and potent, like a psychedelic mushroom in a dark closet.
Bridget, meanwhile, had her own secret.
With whole days at her disposal now—the kids in school and Graham at work—she’d transitioned from occasional temping at Smiley Dental to regular part-time hours, which included Tuesdays and Thursdays from ten A.M.to two P.M., when Dr. Luke was in the office.
Bridget admired Dr. Luke.
This was what she kept telling herself. Only, sometimes, they shared these glances. Glances that were less about professional admiration, basic courtesy or general respect than about physical appreciation ...and sensuality ...and awareness.
For Tamara’s part, she’d been highly aware of her sexy, early-thirty-something neighbor guy—five houses down the block, on the left side. She had, on more than one occasion, joked that divorced men were getting younger and cuter all the time but, in truth, she’d also fantasized about this particular young and newly available man while getting personal with her BNY-762 Vibrating “Bunny.” (Her husband, Jon, was out-of-town quite often.)
Twice, maybe three times, though, Neighbor Aaron had sparked her desires even while she was in bed with Jon, a confession she forbade herself to make aloud.
“A quickie affair is a fun fantasy, but it isn’t real, and none of us would go through with it,” Tamara informed them with a certainty that would have been more believable had she not been fidgeting so relentlessly with her stirring stick.
Jennifer, paying full attention to Tamara now, said, “So you have someone in mind then? Someone who tempts you?”
Tamara squinted at her. “All women do. Especially if they’ve been married for more than a decade. Almost two decades, in my case. But no self-respecting woman acts on it. She’d know better. Husband or lover, it doesn’t matter. Men are all the same, especially once they get what they want.”
Bridget swallowed, not quite agreeing, but also not quite able to substantiate her disagreement with a logical argument. “Er, yeah. But even if they’re not all the same, even if they’re wonderfully romantic and different from any stereotype, there’s that whole ‘It’s a sin’ thing.”
Bridget may have been a lapsed Catholic, especially these last few years. And she may have only been going through the motions of attending church sometimes—for the kids, of course—but she still remembered all Ten Commandments with the same devotion she used to recite all ten ingredients in Sister Margaret Marie’s Perfect Spaghetti Sauce. Both had been burned into her brain for life during fifth-grade catechism.
Jennifer sighed, her slim shoulders hunched under the onerous burden of indecision. “Yeah. I’m not saying those aren’t problems. But what if—” She paused, shrugged, looked away.
“What if what?” Bridget needed to know. Their group had had plenty of deep conversations and, occasionally, some pretty racy ones in their three-and-a-half years of meeting weekly at the Indigo Moon, but none of those discussions had ever taken a turn like this.
“What if it were more immoral not to test the strength of our marriages?” Jennifer whispered finally. Then, in an unexpected flood of monologue, she added, “We’ve all talked about our husbands—the struggles we’ve had, the challenges and, sometimes, the wonderful things, too. We’ve all had ups and downs. But what if there’s a chance we made a wrong choice somewhere? Married the wrong man? Lived the wrong life? What if our real task is to make sure we’re on the right path? To know, once and for all, without question, that we’re where we should be.”
Despite eighteen years of marriage, Jennifer hadn’t forgotten she’d chosen Michael as her rebound guy after David’s desertion. And though she almost never spoke of it, not a week passed that she didn’t second-guess her decision ... that she didn’t wonder if, maybe, she should’ve waited for David just a little bit longer.
Bridget thought of her husband, Graham, and their fifteen years together. The dreams of being a master chef she’d put aside when she got married, the “issues” that had arisen between them since she’d started working more regularly and, if she were being honest, the knotty niggles that had plagued their relationship for several years before that. Her friends didn’t know the half of it.
“So, what are you suggesting?” Bridget said. “That for the sake of our marriages we should ‘experiment’ with other men?” She pushed her thick, dark hair away from her face in a futile attempt to cool herself off.
“I’m not saying anyone should do anything,” Jennifer murmured. “Experimental or otherwise. Just that maybe we owe it to ourselves, and even to the men in our lives, to know for sure who we want to be with. And why.”
“Well, that can only lead to trouble,” Tamara said with a distinct snicker.
Not that Tamara considered this a “bad” question, per se. It was one that had floated in and out of her mind a time or twelve since she’d gotten knocked up with Benji at age twenty-four ... and then gotten married to Jon. Certainly, it would liven up their weekly coffee dates to hear what Jennifer and Bridget learned about themselves as a result of getting friendly with some other guys, but this was one area where she doubted she’d be too opinionated.
People always commented on her candidness and assumed she was fearless, too. But she wasn’t some Trampy Cougar Chick, despite her youthful mannerisms and her predilection toward wearing animal-striped stilettos out in public. (Hey, they matched her three favorite skirts perfectly.) She may have had a mountain of bones to pick with her husband but, trapped as she felt by her marriage at times, she took her commitment seriously. And, anyway, she didn’t have the guts for adultery.
Still, to be a good sport, Tamara added, “Ah, what the hell? As long as I don’t actually have to sleep with the guy, I’ve got someone in mind I’d like to get to know better. Let’s see if Jon can hold his own against a man fifteen years his junior who competes in triathlons for fun.”
Jennifer raised an eyebrow at this, then turned her gaze on Bridget. “What about you?” Jennifer asked, her voice barely audible above the XM radio station piping in 1970s music overhead. Nothing like the melancholic strains of Firefall for setting a mood.
“You wanna do it, don’t you?” Tamara said in a singsongy tone. Adding a saucy expression, she mimed smoking a joint, simultaneously mocking both Bridget’s reticence and the standard plea of peer pressure. “C’mon. Everyone else is doing it.”
Bridget laughed in spite of herself and forced a nod, but she bit her bottom lip to keep from saying the words aloud. The other two understood what she meant because, of course, all three women wanted to allow each other this taboo-laden freedom—just once. But it was embarrassing to admit such a want. The clichéd arm twisting was a requirement in Bridget’s case, if only for appearances’ sake.
And so it was decided that next Friday, during their morning coffee date, they would share with each other in detail whatever transpired with their extramarital objects of interest over the course of the week. It was promised that such a conversation would be undeniably spellbinding, and all three found themselves most curious (and also rather anxious) to let the spinning of the tales begin.
The ladies may have had differing reasons to contemplate stepping outside their marriages and exploring alternate relationships—reasons both verbalized and deeply closeted. But, as they further discussed the idea in low, charged tones, shivers of realization pranced along the skin of their forearms, giving rise to tiny body hairs and great expectations.
Only one thing proved more startling to them than the revelation that each was at least willing to consider having an affair: It was that they thought they knew each other after so many years of chatting and sharing. Understood each other’s marriages. Felt they were in tune with themselves, their needs, their desires.
And yet, it turned out, they weren’t nearly as in the know as they liked to believe.
It turned out, they weren’t even close.