MY EX-LIFE

Stephen McCauley

David Hedges is having an unusual midlife crisis. His boyfriend, Soren, has left him for an older man, albeit a successful surgeon. His job—helping the spoiled children of San Francisco’s elite get into college—is exasperating. As his life reaches new lows, his weight reaches new highs. The only good thing he has is his under-market-value apartment that has a view so stunning he is the envy of all of San Francisco. But when the landlord finally decides to sell—to Soren and the surgeon courtesy of his supposed realtor friend—David hits rock bottom.

Across the country, Julie Fiske isn’t having a much better time herself.

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David Hedges is having an unusual midlife crisis. His boyfriend, Soren, has left him for an older man, albeit a successful surgeon. His job—helping the spoiled children of San Francisco’s elite get into college—is exasperating. As his life reaches new lows, his weight reaches new highs. The only good thing he has is his under-market-value apartment that has a view so stunning he is the envy of all of San Francisco. But when the landlord finally decides to sell—to Soren and the surgeon courtesy of his supposed realtor friend—David hits rock bottom.

Across the country, Julie Fiske isn’t having a much better time herself. Carol, the woman (younger, of course) that Henry, her second husband, left her for, is downright likable—more likeable than Henry was. The bills that she files by throwing into the back seat of her car keep piling up—so much so that she has turned her rambling home into an illegal B&B in the seaside tourist town where she lives. Her sullen teen daughter adamantly refused to apply to college (as David says, “I’m always drawn to sadness in teenagers, which I take to be a sign of intelligence. What teenager with half a brain looking at the condition of the planet they would inherit wouldn’t be sad?”). And Julie can’t seem to quit smoking weed (Why should she? It’s the one good thing she has).

Henry lays down an ultimatum—if Mandy doesn’t start applying to college, she’s going to come live with him and Carol. And then Mandy surprises Henry, and stuns Julie, by saying she’s been working with David Hedges, Mom’s first husband from long ago. It’s a lie, but a good one, and, Julie thinks, not a bad idea. So when Julie calls David up out of the blue and asks if he’ll help Mandy, he says of course. And when Mandy tells David he should come visit them and stay in one of their B&B rooms, he surprises everyone, including himself, by accepting.

Soon David and Julie are living together and in many ways pick up exactly where they left off. But while the chemistry between them is still there, and they can finish each other’s sentences, there’s one conversation they never finished that is unavoidable.

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  • Flatiron Books
  • Hardcover
  • May 2018
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781250122438

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About Stephen McCauley

Stephen McCauley is the author of six previous novels, including The Object of My Affection, True Enough, and Alternatives to Sex. Many have been national bestsellers, and three have been made into feature films. The New York Times Book Review dubbed McCauley “the secret love child of Edith Wharton and Woody Allen,” and he was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. His fiction, reviews, and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper’s, Vogue, and many other publications. He currently serves as Co-Director of Creative Writing at Brandeis University. He has several properties listed on Airbnb in Massachusetts and New York and owns a total of zero toss pillows.

Author Website

Praise

Named one of Amazon’s Top 20 Editors’ Picks for Spring

My Ex-Life is a pleasure of the deepest sort—it’s a wise, ruefully funny, and ultimately touching exploration of mid-life melancholy and unexpected second chances. Stephen McCauley is a wonderful writer, and this may be his best book yet.”Tom Perrotta, bestselling author of Mrs. Fletcher

My Ex-Life is a rich, yet delicate ragout of wonderfully vivid characters, hilarious dialogue, and spot-on cultural criticism. It satisfies on every level.”Richard Russo, bestselling author of Everybody’s Fool

“Before you read My Ex-Life, make sure the person you sleep with is willing to be woken constantly by your laughter. Stephen McCauley writes sparkling, graceful, witty prose with an ease and fluency that seems like sleight-of-hand. If I were the kind of reader who highlighted brilliant passages, the whole entire book would be underlined.”Katherine Heiny, author of Standard Deviation

Discussion Questions

1. Did you read the book in print or on an e-reader? Did you listen to the audiobook? How might the experience of this novel have been different if you had chosen otherwise?

2. Which character was your favorite? Least favorite? Which character changed the most?

3. Who does “my” refer to in the title My Ex-Life?

4. In chapter 4, Mandy says “This was a bad idea and she knew it, but…she was pulled into it by an urge to find out what would happen that was stronger than the urge to listen to the voice telling her not to.” At times, Mandy and other characters seem to be acting out of step with their truest selves. Can you think of examples from the novel? What, if anything, sets them right? Do you see any parallels to your own life?

5. Julie’s neighbor Amira doesn’t hide her husband’s aim to take over the Fiske house to make a pool, while David’s flame, Kenneth, isn’t completely forthcoming about the Airbnb petition. And then there’s Renata and Mandy’s friend Lindsay. Would you rather have an honestly disloyal friend or a dishonestly loyal one? Who’s the best friend in the novel? Who is the worst?

6. McCauley has been praised for his (characters’) sometimes caustic witticisms, such as “Leonard doesn’t have friends. He has financial opportunities wearing socks.” (chapter 2) Did you have a favorite one-liner in this novel?

7. David reads E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels aloud to Julie both in their past life and their current one, and the book means different things then and now, but illuminates both times equally. Are there any books that provide such a touchstone for you?

8. David seems to object to his student Nancy’s stretching of the truth for her college application essay, but Nancy’s mom, Janine, shrugs it off. Should the truth ever get in the way of a good story?

9. In chapter 18, David presents Mandy with three essay prompts to sharpen her college application:

  • “Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis, real or imagined.
  • Dog and cat. Coffee and tea. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
  • What is Square One and can you really go back to it?”

Pick one and answer it from your own experience. What do you think the novel’s answer to each questions is?

10. Do you agree with Julie’s decision not to tell David she was going to have an abortion? Did he have a right to know? Or did David cede that right by hiding his own secret from Julie?

11. Toward the end of the novel, in chapter 40, David and Julie have a long-deferred reckoning on the stairs. What do you think has greater power, the said or the unsaid? Does timing matter?

12. How has Mandy’s life changed as a result of what happened with Craig Crespo? Will she be able to get beyond it?

13. Does David save Julie or does Julie save David? Neither? Both?

14. “All couples start off as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Laurel and Hardy.” (chapter 25) True?

15. We can always deceive ourselves better than others can deceive us. Do you agree? What might the novel argue? (Consider: David’s sexual orientation; Julie’s marijuana habit; etc.)

16. In the past, McCauley has said he’s fascinated by the idea of chosen (as opposed to born) families. Which family in the novel strikes you as most true? What might your answer say about Family in our times?

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Julie touched the pocket of her white shirt. Yes, the joint was still there, and no, she wasn’t going to smoke it. She’d given up pot, and thank god for that. Life was so much more clear and simple without it. Henry had told her he wanted to discuss something when he dropped off Mandy tonight, and since Henry rarely discussed anything—was, she finally saw, incapable of discussion in the ordinary sense of the word—she interpreted the comment as a threat and had spent the afternoon under a cloud of foreboding. She needed to be sharp for whatever was coming.

She took a seat on the steps at the back of the house, clutching a bag with half a dozen muffins in it, and waited for Henry’s car to pull into the drive. The muffins were for Carol, the woman Henry had left her for. Naturally, Carol was younger. Julie knew only one man who’d betrayed his marriage for a woman older than his wife, and it was overstating it to say she knew Prince Charles.

A soft breeze was blowing up from the ocean, bringing with it the smell of salt and seaweed. From the steps where she was sitting, she could see the harbor and the shadowy lobster boats tugging on their moorings and the yellow lights starting to come on in the awful restaurants along the shore. It was funny how you could love a view, even while recognizing it as a cliché vista of the New England coastline. She’d been ambivalent about the town of Beauport itself at the start—so small, so provincial—but had overlooked all that because she loved (she loved!) the house. She eventually came to appreciate Beauport’s obvious charms, although they were tinged with loneliness since Henry had left. Dumped her, but who was counting? It was important not to turn bitter.

At this point, it was hard to know how she felt about the marriage ending. She was too exhausted. They’d met almost twenty-two years ago, and while Julie had expected to spend the rest of her life with Henry, when she looked back with honesty and clarity—a rare and depressing combination—she saw that cracks had started to appear in the foundation about a decade earlier. These were hairline fractures she’d chosen to ignore: Henry’s vague but persistent disapproval of her; his pervasive air of dissatisfaction; his decision to switch careers in his late forties to run a restaurant. Even his support of Mitt Romney had had an aura of aggression toward her, a how-do-you-like-that? quality she’d sensed but had been unable to label at the time.

Now they had a signed separation agreement and were inching toward the final act. The divorce was uncontested, they’d used a mediator, and so far, everyone was behaving like an adult. In Henry’s case, a petulant, self-centered adult, but that made it emotionally easier to let go, even if she feared it might make it more complicated practically.

She knew that if she’d dragged in an antagonistic lawyer, she would have done better, but Henry was struggling financially, he was her daughter’s father, and she’d always loathed people who exploited accidents and errors and alienated affections for profit. She was determined not to be one. It was one thing to hate someone for falling out of love with you, but another to attempt to turn it into an economic windfall. She’d been adamant about that in her divorce from David Hedges, against the advice of her mother. But there had been no property then, and there hadn’t been a child. I’m sorry, David.

She was getting what she wanted most. Mandy would continue to live with her until she went to college—this crucial final year of high school when they could bond, with, hopefully, the cloud of unfinished marital business dispersed—and Julie would buy Henry out of the house. They’d agreed on a closing date in the middle of August. With the help of an ultra-organized friend at Crawford School, she’d actually sent in the paperwork to apply for the mortgage. The value of the house had more than doubled since they’d bought it, but years earlier, she’d paid off the joint mortgage they’d had with the money she’d inherited from her mother. What she now owed Henry—essentially, one quarter of the value quoted by a real estate agent—was daunting but not prohibitive.

She had confidence it would all work out. Shallow confidence, admittedly. It was similar to her sureness that she understood the specifics of the civil war in Syria—yes, but one pointed question and it all unraveled.

She’d been warned by friends who’d been through divorce that as the summer wearied on, she should expect Henry to grow less reasonable. Hopefully, tonight was not the beginning of this phase. He’d recently discovered that she’d started renting out rooms through Airbnb, despite her efforts at hiding it from him, so she had to be on best behavior. It was June 6; far from wearying on, the summer technically had not yet begun.

She pulled out the joint. Anxiously waiting for Henry to berate her wasn’t doing anyone any good, and since she’d stopped smoking pot, it mattered less if she occasionally got stoned. Her slips were meaningless, parenthetical. Rain was predicted for tomorrow, so why not enjoy the lovely evening in a calm frame of mind? Weather was a useful excuse for so many things in life. Like air, there was always some of it, even if the quality varied from day to day. She lit and inhaled, and warmth flowed over her. The blue lights strung along the wharf that jutted into the harbor below sparkled and she could hear the faint, dreamy sounds of a piano from somewhere in the neighborhood, one of those thin, aimless, New Age chord progressions that the magic of marijuana transformed into Chopin. It was a shame pot did that thing to your memory, because everything else it did was so pleasant.

What she liked least about Carol was that she was essentially sympathetic. It would have been so much easier if Henry had left her for someone loathsome. Carol was small and anxious to please. She’d been so silently apologetic about their situation, Julie had wanted to hug her and tell her it was fine, even though, of course, it wasn’t. There were lots of things Julie wanted to tell Carol: pink was not her color (pink was not anyone’s color); the ponytail stuck through the baseball cap did not suit her; most of all, she was too good for Henry. Even Julie had probably been too good for Henry, but it had taken a while to realize that and some days, she still wasn’t sure.

Naturally, if she said any of that, it would come out wrong, so instead she’d started sending small, inconsequential gifts back with Henry when he came around to pick up or drop off Mandy. Two weeks ago, it had been a jar of fig jam she’d picked up at a farmers’ market. Mandy had reported that Carol liked figs, although she’d made it sound—as so much of what Mandy said these days sounded—like an insult. “She eats figs.”

Tonight, muffins.

She took another hit of pot and heard someone calling her name. “Julie? Are you home?” Probably Tracy, the woman who’d arrived with her husband the night before. They were from … well, somewhere anyway, and were in Beauport for a wedding.

“Be right there,” Julie called.

She tamped out the joint and was about to toss it into the trash when she thought better of it and slipped it into a fake rock she’d bought for extra keys (even though she never locked the doors) and kept tucked against the foundation. Knowing it was there would help her not smoke it.

As soon as she entered the house, she felt more at ease. She’d fallen in love with the place as soon as she saw it, a rambling nineteenth-century residence that allegedly had been built by a sea captain and added onto over the years with the exuberant eccentricity that appealed to her aesthetic. Every house in town claimed a connection to a sea captain, but this house was plopped on top of a hill, cherry-on-a-cupcake style, and was impressive enough to make the claim plausible. The woodwork, the stained glass panels, the graceful curve of the staircase, the built-in cabinets—so cozy and ship-like—the heavy porcelain doorknobs, and the wavy, blistered windowpanes that had survived blizzards and hurricanes and the baseballs and bad tempers of generations of residents. There were far too many rooms, a selling point when they’d bought it in the early, optimistic days of their marriage, a burden as time went on, and—as of three months ago when a colleague at school had persuaded her to rent rooms online because “everyone” was doing it—the source of an essential secondary-income stream. Once everything was settled, it would be the supplement she needed to cover bills and a few luxury items like—oh, food, for example.

When people showed an appreciation for the house as they checked in, she immediately liked them. One such person was Raymond Cross, the musician who’d checked in in April. But then, there had been so many things she’d liked about Raymond, it was hard to know where to begin. And best not to begin at all since she had no reason to believe she’d see him again. No matter how much she’d like to.

She found Tracy in the living room, lifting the seat cushion of a chair. Was she looking for quarters?

“Everything all right?” Julie asked.

Tracy turned, neither startled nor embarrassed. “I was looking to see if the other side was less stained. I guess you might as well leave it like this.” She smiled, as if she’d complimented Julie’s taste, showing off dazzling teeth, which, in Julie’s heightened condition, reminded her of subway tiles. Nice hair, though. Blond, shampoo-commercial shiny, and snipped at the jawline in a way that suggested she was shopping for an identity at the hair salon.

“It’s mostly family that uses the living room anyway,” Julie hinted.

“I can see why. There’s not enough light in here to read or do much of anything.” Tracy had a cheerful voice that was completely out of sync with her comments, no doubt a sign of emotional disconnect. “Please,” Tracy gestured. “Take a seat, won’t you?”

Julie tried not to look insulted. After all, it was still her house.

“I’m fine standing,” Julie said.

Tracy looked around the room, her eyes melting with empathy. “It is hard to find a place to sit with all this furniture you’ve got crammed in here, isn’t it? How about we sit on this old sofa thing?”

The furniture in question was a 1950s teak daybed Julie had picked up for seventy-five dollars at a flea market in Rowley. Yes, it could stand to be reupholstered, but even in its current state she could easily get five hundred from a dealer she knew in Cambridge. And why sofa thing?

“I don’t want to be rude, Tracy, but I’m waiting for my daughter to get dropped off. Her father and I have something important to discuss.”

“Believe me,” she said, “I won’t take up more than a minute. I can see you’re completely overwhelmed.’”

When Tracy and her husband got out of their spotless car wheeling identical black suitcases and wearing what appeared to be pressed jeans, Julie’s eye had twitched. When everything looks perfectly right about a person, there’s usually something significantly wrong. They were probably in their early thirties, that awkward age when people still believe they matter and that life is going to go their way. They’d stopped Julie this morning and asked if she knew a good place to run, preferably “a nice eleven-mile loop.” Who ran that much, and why such an annoyingly random yet specific number?

“What did you want to talk about?” Julie asked, and then, fearing her tone might have been too harsh, she sat beside Tracy on the daybed.

“Isn’t that more comfortable?” Tracy asked. She actually touched Julie’s knee. “Did you read my profile when I made the booking?”

“I didn’t study it closely.” The line between understatement and lie was usefully blurry.

“That’s all right. Jerry and I are professional personal organizers. We’re the ones who coined the term ‘messology.’”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with it,” Julie said. She hated that everything had to be broken down into categories with cute labels, no doubt, in this case, as part of a branding scheme. A brand seemed to be more valuable than an actual talent these days, although the two things were connected somehow. It was true that given Tracy’s spotless appearance and unflappable cheer, it was easier to think of her as a brand than as a person. Maybe it was the pot, but in this light, she did look like one of those bobble-headed dolls with her round eyes and her perfect hairdo.

“I’d be happy to work with you on one corner of a room in exchange for a free night. We’ve done some amazing work with people like you.”

This was an accusation, one made in the superior tones of a religious fanatic, but it’s always compelling to have someone tell you about yourself, even when it’s something you’d rather not hear. “People like me?” Julie asked. “I’m not sure I follow you.”

“I know it looks normal to you, but from where I sit, the signs are clear. We’ve developed a scale of the four stages of pre-hoarding. We call it the ABCD Scale. Aggressive Acquirer, Binge Buyer, Compulsive Collector, and Deluged Debtor. Jerry and I were discussing you in bed last night, and we think you’re only at A, but what comes after A, Julie?”

A car pulled into the driveway. She did not need Henry to walk in on this conversation.

“I’m going to assume that’s a rhetorical question,” she said.

Tracy put her manicured hand on Julie’s knee again. “I know it’s tempting to get defensive, but is it worth it? When we see patients get defensive about their Aggressive Acquiring, we worry they’re about to enter the next level.”

Julie stood, trying to control her anger. She wanted to remind Tracy that she wasn’t a patient and that there was no way she and her husband could insult their way into a free night. But remembering the threat of negative online reviews, she said, “I really appreciate your offer. It’s so considerate, I’ll gladly give you a fifty-dollar credit for your next stay.” As she was leaving the room, she turned and said, “And it’s a daybed, Tracy. A Danish modern daybed, not a sofa thing.”

Henry was standing on the gravel driveway, surveying the back of the house disapprovingly. Seersucker shorts. Ridiculous at his age, but attractive on his newly defined thighs. Carol had issues with exercise that she was obviously passing on to Henry. Despite a desire to burst into tears—she was not a hoarder, barely a slob, just busy—Julie gave her most merry wave. Hopefully not one of those I’m-stoned-so-everything’s-rosy waves. She headed down the steps carefully as Mandy emerged from the car with a thud, as if she’d dropped from a wall, and Opal bounded out after her. Opal ran over to Julie and began leaping up, at least to the extent that she could with her one hind leg. She growled in frustration, poor thing, and then raced around the yard frantically, barking. Home, home, home, I’m home.

With the joyless resignation that defined so many of her actions these days, Mandy lumbered to the trunk and pulled out her duffel bag.

“I thought you were going to have something done about those gutters,” Henry said.

Julie looked back at the house. Henry had tossed out orders last time she’d talked with him. Naturally, she’d forgotten.

“I’m working on it,” Julie said.

Mandy clomped over to Julie and planted a kiss on her cheek. A crumb tossed in her direction, but such a welcome one. “Nice perfume, Mom,” she whispered.

It was getting harder to tell herself that Mandy knew nothing about her pot habit since, in the past year, it seemed as if Mandy knew more about most things while caring less about everything. Another reason to be glad she’d stopped smoking.

As soon as Mandy was inside, Julie tried to grab the advantage. She presented the oily bag to Henry. “A little something for Carol,” she said. “Carrot muffins. I know she’s big on vegetables.”

He held up his hands as if she’d pointed a gun at him. “That’s one of the things we need to talk about,” he said. “No more gifts. It makes her feel terrible you’re being so nice to her.”

“Would it help if I included a nasty note?”

“You know what you’re doing, so let’s cut the comedy act.”

Like a lot of people who have no sense of humor and take themselves entirely seriously, Henry assumed everyone else was playing it for laughs. Oddly, she’d been attracted to Henry’s earnestness when she first met him, probably a reaction to David, who’d been compulsively ironic. The second husband was often a reaction to the first, just as Obama had been a reaction to Bush or—more appropriately in this case—Reagan had been a reaction to Carter. Henry had had the looks of an ordinary man you’d see grilling hamburgers in an ordinary backyard, a man you could imagine expounding too long on a topic of interest to no one, a contrast to David’s lean angularity and floppy hair that had made him look, in certain lights, like a dashing minor character in a British miniseries about university life. Those less interesting qualities of Henry’s had made her feel secure and, no doubt, a little more interesting herself. Henry had found her offbeat because she’d never worn makeup. Now he had Carol, who, according to Mandy, had a makeup mirror with multiple settings including one called “Home Lighting Situations.” Julie had home-lighting situations, too, but they were blown bulbs, frayed cords, and trouble finding the circuit breakers.

She tossed the bag with the muffins onto the porch. “Fine. Was there anything else?”

He scanned the backyard in a way that made Julie nervous. She suddenly wished she hadn’t smoked the joint after all.

“I had a call from Richard the other day,” he said.

“Am I supposed to know who that is?”

Henry pointed to the hedge surrounding the property and indicated the house on the other side with his chin. “Amira’s husband,” he said.

“Oh, that Richard.” Like most wealthy men who were married to gorgeous, much younger women, Richard’s name was less relevant than his bank account. Julie and Amira were friends, at least to the extent that Amira was capable of having friendships with women. It helped that Julie provided less competition for male attention than Opal. She waited for Henry to say more, with a sick feeling growing in her stomach.

“He’s interested in the house,” Henry said. There was disingenuous enthusiasm in his voice, as if he really thought she’d be happy to hear this. Good news! The tumor is malignant!

“He has a house,” Julie said. “According to Amira, he has several. And this house isn’t for sale, so how is that relevant?”

“What do you need this monstrosity for? It’s going to be a weight around your neck, trying to keep up with the bills and repairs. When Mandy goes off to college, you’ll be rattling around in an empty house with the roof falling in.”

“The roof is sound.” That was true. The rest of what he’d said was up for grabs. It was important not to show that she was beginning to panic; Henry, like all cowards, had a knack for smelling blood in the water. “We have a deal, Henry. We’ve signed an agreement. I’ve submitted paperwork for the mortgage. Once we pass papers and finalize the divorce, you won’t have to worry about the weights I have around my neck. You’ll be free, and frankly, so will I. As for Richard, he can buy some other historic house to knock down.”

Henry shook his head with a combination of pity and disapproval, a variation on his prevailing attitude toward her since the glow had worn off their relationship and all the things that had charmed him about her began to annoy him. He’d been losing his hair for years, and recently, Carol had persuaded him to shave his head, a move that gave him a more solid and confident appearance. Specifically, he seemed more confident that he’d been justified in leaving her.

“I’m making sacrifices here, Julie. I need the money for the restaurant and Richard’s offering more than we discussed. A hundred thousand more. Cash, no contingencies, no inspection.”

“We did more than discuss it, we made an agreement. We have legal papers.”

She could see his eyes wandering. This was what she’d come to realize about Henry, that he didn’t listen when other people talked, just waited for them to stop talking so he could make his next point.

“The papers can be changed. And don’t forget, the house is only one part of our agreement.”

The summer was officially wearying on. The piano she’d heard earlier started up again, but this time it sounded jangly and jarring. Six months after she and Henry had moved into the house, she’d discovered she was pregnant. The place was bound up in her mind with Mandy and all the hopes they’d had for a happy life. She’d never known Mandy anywhere else, and if she lost the house, she’d be losing a connection to her daughter. She was stung by the realization that Henry had no nostalgic associations and saw the place primarily as a pawn.

“I don’t like the direction Mandy’s headed,” he said. “She’s evasive, she’s cranky and surly. She comes over for the weekend and she doesn’t even want to watch TV with us.”

She didn’t like the direction Mandy was headed in either, although it was hard to pinpoint a reason. She wasn’t depressed, but she rarely exhibited anything like happiness. Her grades were holding steady, but somewhere in the mediocre range. She’d occasionally fly into a rage and stomp around the house, not caring if the guests heard her. There was something heavy about Mandy, like the muffins Henry had just rejected.

“So your concern is she’s not interested in House Hunters and cooking competitions? You should spend a little more time with her peers. They’re all like that. And you don’t think your moving out might have hurt her?”

He pondered this briefly and then brought down the hammer. “Possibly, but she sees that I’m happy.”

Julie had been happy for three days in April, when Raymond Cross had stayed at the house. But somehow, that brief respite had made her realize how numb she felt so much of the time. Maybe how numb she’d felt for years.

“I’m worried about college,” he said. “I asked her what you and she were doing about it, and I got a vague response about a friend whose parents supposedly told her she doesn’t have to go if she doesn’t want.”

“She’s going to college,” Julie said. “She took the SATs a couple of weeks ago. We’ll know her scores in July. In the meantime, I’ll get even more organized about it when my teaching’s done.”

“Really? Not too busy renting rooms and ignoring the upkeep on this place and forgetting to pay the bills? Those half-assed college visits earlier this spring?”

He moved his hands to his hips and glared at her for a moment across the twilit yard, once the scene of quiet evenings when she and Henry had sat side by side in Adirondack chairs and discussed their good fortune. She looked to the chairs, all too appropriately going to rot under the pine tree at the edge of the lawn. The contempt she could take, but when his face softened, something inside her dropped. She could smell trouble of a more serious kind on the breeze.

“Can we continue this inside?” he said.

As they walked in, Julie toggled between hoping he wouldn’t notice all the dog shit on the lawn and wishing he’d step in it.

She indicated the sofa thing.

“Please,” she said. “Take a seat.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I figured I could since it’s still my house.”

Henry plopped down wearily and she sat in a chair opposite him. “Have you noticed,” she said, “that I’ve done a lot of tidying up in here?” Sometimes, if you plant a suggestion in someone’s mind, they see what you want them to see.

He looked around doubtfully. “Still going to flea markets, I gather.” He frowned and turned on a light. Or tried to. Home Lighting Situation #1.

“First of all,” he said, “this isn’t a fight. We’re talking about what’s best for our daughter.”

The reasonable tone was clearly meant to allay hysteria. She felt as if a clamp was tightening in her throat.

“Please get to the point,” she squeaked.

Again he cast a disapproving look with contempt in his eyes. “We have better schools where I’m living now.”

She stood. “No!” Perhaps she said it too loudly; there was a creaking of floorboards from above, the room where the messologists were. “Absolutely not.”

“Better schools, better counselors, more motivated students. A better place for her senior year.”

“No. It’s not part of the discussion.”

“If you really expect to get primary custody, if you expect me to take peanuts for the house, maybe it needs to be. Have you thought of that? She needs rigor in her life and it’s obvious she’s not getting it here, especially with a lot of strangers tromping in and out.”

“She’s meeting people from all over the world,” she said. “It’s educational.” It wasn’t clear how changing sheets for a guest from Amsterdam was more educational than changing them for someone from New Hampshire, but there was no need to go into that. Newly bald Henry looked especially stern and steely in the dim light of the room. “I don’t suppose you’ve even discussed this with Carol.”

“As a matter of fact, it was her suggestion. She wants to get Mandy on a study schedule and take her out jogging with her.”

After all the effort Julie had put into her little gifts. After trying to be so damned understanding for the past year and a half. What can you expect from someone who eats figs.

“If you had a shred of decency, Henry, you’d find Carol help for her fitness obsession instead of encouraging it and trying to drag your daughter into grade anxiety and body dysmorphia.”

And then, in a depressingly reasonable tone, he said, “Come on, Julie. Admit it, you don’t have a plan for college here.”

“Actually, Dad, we do.”

Julie turned. Mandy was standing in the doorway from the hall. She was wearing the same overalls and long-sleeved jersey she’d been wearing earlier, but had put on a woolen watch cap. Because it was so cold? Opal was beside her, looking up at her with the eager adoration Julie was no longer permitted to express to her daughter.

Henry’s mouth was pursed in doubt. “Oh, really? And were you planning to tell me?”

“Mom contacted her first husband.”

“What’s he got to do with this?”

“He has a college-counseling business,” Mandy went on. “We’ve been working together for a couple of weeks, talking schools and essays.”

Julie was appalled by the audacity of this lie but said nothing.

A couple of months ago, Mandy had come across boxes of records and books of David’s that were moldering in the basement. Julie had had no idea they were down there or why she had ended up with them in the first place. The boxes were a time capsule of a previous life she thought she’d let go of decades earlier.

“Who’s David Hedges?” Mandy had asked, reading the name from inside one of the books.

When Mandy was ten, Julie had told her she’d been married before. Why not? But until that moment, Mandy had never seemed especially interested in the details, not that Julie had been eager to discuss them. As Mandy was flipping through the albums of Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy and the other French singers David had introduced her to, Julie had felt an unexpected surge of nostalgia.

“The man I was married to briefly a million years ago,” she’d said.

“Oh, right. Why’d you divorce?”

“That’s a long story. We decided we were better as friends than husband and wife.”

Mandy had nodded, looked through the records and books, and then, in a nonchalant way, said, “Gay?”

There was something galling about the fact that Mandy had apparently surmised in ten seconds what it had taken Julie years to figure out. She acknowledged that he was.

“We lost touch after your father and I met. He lives in California. I was thinking of him the other day.” And then, as ghosts started to rise from the cartons, she said, “We had a little dog named Oliver with a tiny body and huge ears,” and launched into a description of their pet and their apartment. Mandy had listened with unusual interest.

Mandy had taken the records and a few of the books up to her room along with the suitcase-like record player she’d found in some closet. She’d been listening to the records that weren’t too warped, the singers’ voices frail and melancholic, even when singing ostensibly happy songs. Julie had been out on the lawn one evening at dusk and Françoise Hardy’s voice had come pouring down from the third floor, singing a heartbreakingly innocent song about friendship she’d recorded at age eighteen. The music had filled Julie with yearnings, partly for David and the imperfect life they’d been living back then, but mostly for the life she’d believed she would have. For the faith she’d had in possibilities.

Obviously, Mandy had done some investigating on her own.

“I thought he was in San Francisco,” Henry said. “Appropriately enough.”

Henry had enjoyed deriding David from the outset, reminding Julie that he was more of a man than David had been, whatever that meant. Men’s obsessions with their own masculinity were embarrassingly effeminate. His jealousy of David had been ridiculous, but it was true that she’d always felt closer to David in an inexplicable way than she’d ever felt to Henry. At one time, she and Henry had been ardent lovers, they’d been companions for more than twenty years, and they’d been loving, cooperative parents, but she couldn’t claim they’d been friends in the way she and David had been. It was a question of small matters: Henry never laughed about the same things she did; he’d never lain at the opposite end of the sofa and read whole novels to her; never sat up in bed and explained the virtues of Nicole Croisille’s breathy delivery and Mistinguett’s enduring appeal. He’d never opened up a world for her. He’d never even understood why she loved dogs.

“We’re working on the phone and through email, Dad.”

Mandy had moved closer to Julie’s chair, and Julie felt a conspiratorial closeness she hadn’t felt since Mandy was thirteen. She put her arm around Mandy’s waist. “He charges a fortune for his service,” Julie said. And then, to add something else that was not, technically, a lie: “We haven’t gone over the specifics, but I know he’ll agree to do it as a favor.”

Henry stood up from the sofa thing and leaned back to relieve his spine. He and Carol loved showing off how much pain and irreparable joint damage their fitness cost them. “Is there some reason you didn’t mention this when I brought it up earlier?”

“The thing is, Dad, we’re telling you now.”

“Just for the record,” Henry said as Julie was walking him to his car, “I don’t entirely believe that, but it’ll be easy enough to check on whether you’re getting anywhere. I want her to complete the common app and have a plausible list of colleges she plans to apply to by the date of the closing. That’s August fourteenth.”

It irritated her that the date had iconic status for him.

“If she doesn’t, we’re going back to mediation. I refuse to sacrifice everything.”

“Wow,” she said. “We’ve gotten to actual threats.”

“Call me when you hear about the mortgage. If you get turned down, we need to start negotiating with Richard.”

Julie was still buoyed by Mandy’s use of “we” even if it had been folded into a lie. As she walked up the staircase to the third floor, she heard music, one of those Juliette Gréco songs that made you think of foggy docks and dark nights. It was warmer up here under the roof, and it smelled of tar and sunbaked wood.

When Mandy opened her bedroom door, the conspiratorial affection she’d shown earlier seemed to have evaporated. Probably it was too much to hope it would last.

“That’s such a beautiful record,” Julie said. “It makes me happy you’re listening to this music.”

“I’m not really. I like the way the scratches sound.”

Surely there was something appealing in this, too?

“As you can probably guess,” Julie said, “I have a lot of questions.”

“I know, Mom, but you don’t have a lot of time.” She reached into the pocket of her overalls and handed Julie a scrap of notebook paper with a number on it. “You should call him tomorrow.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Stephen McCauley