May 27, 2020KR OnlineFiction

My Husband’s Second Wife

Delia looked the same. Her gray-black hair was piled attractively on her head, in the style she had favored before marrying my husband. At first she didn’t see me as she scooped organic walnuts into a paper bag. She wore a signature dress: long, almost transparent. As she leaned toward the bulk bins, the fabric grazed the floor. I considered the best way to escape unnoticed, but then she turned and caught me in the blaze of her smile.

Delia always had a great smile: shimmering, inclusive. Years ago, before I was married, she was just my neighbor. But even though we were older now (some might say actually old) and our children were graduating from college and having their own kids, even though the man who had been our husband was now married to someone else and living in Texas, I still felt awkward to face her like this: my cart filled with nothing but ice cream, potato chips, and cheap rosé.

“You changed your hair!” she said, alarmed.

I had to think about that. My hair was short, but it had been for a long time. “Two years ago, I think?”

“Well.” She appeared to reconsider. “It suits you.”

Then she asked about my daughter, my son, the grandchild who was now three.

For my part, I asked dutifully after the twins, who for one long summer had lived with my daughter, their much older sister, because Delia and my husband didn’t know what else to do with them. (“Mom, they’re so spoiled,” my daughter had complained, and I smugly refrained from telling her this pleased me.)

“Oh, the twins.” Delia sighed. “Kitty’s living with a terrible boyfriend she’ll probably marry. Peter’s backpacking in Eastern Europe. Claims he’s staying in hostels, but the credit card bills!” She rolled her eyes, glanced appraisingly at my cart.

Though she was probably judging me, I was suddenly filled with goodwill. “You should come to our book club. We’re reading all the big Russians.” This had been Cynthia Schueren’s idea—a year of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy—but in front of Delia I claimed our goal proudly, as if it were mine.

That smile again, this time a little apology. Of course she wouldn’t come. “I’ve gone a bit lowbrow,” she said. “Only murder mysteries and cookbooks these days.”

I hid my disappointment behind a conspiratorial little laugh.

We lived in a college town, full of old hippies. It took a lot of effort not to run into each other. When she and my husband first married, I saw her everywhere, and she was wise enough not to try to make conversation. But our mutual friends were always telling me they thought she was pregnant, because of either how she looked (fat or glowing) or what she was eating (everything or only carrots with mustard). They saw such claims as therapeutic gossip, but I felt them as little knives stabbing my throat.

In the store, without this husband-sized wedge between us, Delia and I parted amiably, almost tenderly. She reached for my hand, squeezed it, and I saw that she was still wearing her engagement ring. A ring I once coveted, it had belonged to my mother-in-law, who had said gazing at jewelry filled her with the kind of pleasure no man could ever provide.

• •

Over dinner, I told Hugh about running into Delia.

“I thought she and Sam moved to Texas?”

“That’s the new wife,” I said, “the one who sells insurance.”

I didn’t know much about her, except that she was a former competitive tennis player and, according to my son, “older than you’d expect for a third wife.”

“Delia was the voracious reader?”

Frankly, it surprised me that Hugh remembered that much. “Apparently she isn’t anymore,” I informed him.

Hugh did not pick up on my tone of surprise. So we moved on to other topics: the group of senior citizens—“Our near future,” Hugh said—to whom he was teaching computer literacy at the community center. Also a couple of my patients, whose troubles I wasn’t supposed to talk about, so I made sure not to use their names. Hugh and I had been together for seventeen years and had never married.

In the evening, we undressed each other slowly. Hugh always smiles when I kiss his eyelids, the inside of his wrists. Our hunger is familiar and easily satisfied. After, we read together in bed.

In a week, my book group was meeting to talk about Anna Karenina. What I had failed to mention to Delia was how slow the reading was for me. I couldn’t keep all the Russian names straight, and this alone felt like a personal failing. Mostly, I didn’t want to admit that I kind of hated the book she had tried to get me to read for years. I wanted to hold up my reading as a kind of triumph. But of what? If Delia no longer read and loved the big Russian writers, what kind of triumph would it be to finish Anna Karenina and then tell her about it?

In bed, the pages inches from my face, the words just swam together, and in front of me I could see only Delia.

• •

Once upon a time, Delia adored Tolstoy. She tried to push Anna Karenina on me the way my evangelical neighbor had tried to push Jesus on my daughter when she was young. (Though we’re Jewish, the neighbor assured my daughter she still had time to accept Christ into her heart.)

The first time Delia encouraged me to read it, I laughed. “I’m not sure I identify with a woman throwing herself in front of a train.”

“Tolstoy’s genius is that you will identify with her—and all the other characters, too.” She had smiled, but I felt like she was chastising me, and for this reason alone I had stayed away from the book with the stubbornness of a teenager.

“And really,” Delia had continued, “that’s a small part of the story. It’s a shame that’s all anyone knows about it.”

Delia used to say she was drawn to what she called the purple density of Russian prose. “Russian writers make you appreciate the complexities of people, the sorrow and magic of being a dull little human on planet earth.”

To be clear, it wasn’t just the Russians Delia loved. She read everything from Murdoch to Murakami and remembered every character, every story line. She could describe the atmosphere of a book on a molecular level, as if she’d experienced it. As if she’d created it herself.

I still remember my husband talking about that quality with deep affection. He was plucking the white hairs out of his beard, after one of Delia’s parties, and I had to pause as I unhooked my bra. It was my first inkling of a defection.

Delia taught high school English, and every wall of her house was covered with novels. Inside each book, the margins were filled with copious notes in Delia’s tiny, perfect penmanship. As for the physical differences, I was on the short side and once very thin. Delia was tall, queenly, and generously padded.

I understood that my husband was in love with her at a New Year’s party she hosted at her rambling farmhouse in the mid-’80s. As we all hugged goodbye at her door, I observed how he held on to her; I could see in his fingertips how he wanted to cling to her flesh.

And I didn’t blame him exactly. When he finally confessed his feelings to me, my first reaction was of regret—that I wouldn’t be on the receiving end of Delia’s embrace anymore, or of her genuine, glittery smile.

Only later did I feel rage. But I expressed my anger quietly, in the dark of our bedroom, so that the children wouldn’t hear fighting in their dreams.

“If you love her more than me,” I hissed, “then go.” It sounded like something I’d heard in a movie once, and I immediately regretted saying it.

Yet it did have some effect, because he embraced me then, weeping into my breasts, which he kissed and admired, working himself up as if to thank me for my understanding. I could feel that the tension had gone out of him, that he wept only out of relief, that he caressed me as if in a distant memory of me and my body.

Afterwards he dressed quickly, and then he went. Willingly, eagerly, straight to Delia’s bed.

 

Delia never gave our husband a clichéd ultimatum. According to friends, when he told her about the woman in Texas, whom he had met in an airport security line, Delia merely remarked how much she would miss his hair. (He had all of it, and it gave him an appealing illusion of youth and vigor.) Then while he was at work, she piled his things neatly in boxes, including any book he had ever given her, and left them outside in the rain. She changed the locks on the house, which was still her house anyway. They’d never put his name on the deed.

When he knocked on the door, she laughed at him from the window of her study.

He pleaded: “I love you, I love you, forgive me.”

I think he might have stayed. He had never thrived in hot weather. But at that moment I believe Delia saw in him both the man she and I had loved at the same time, and the man who would one day merely be the father of her difficult adult children. She closed the window.

 

When my mother-in-law was feeling blue, she liked to spread out her rings and necklaces on the dining room table. On a chilly evening, weeks before I married her son, she was in one of these moods, and she poured cocktails for each of us, which we drank while she told me the story behind each ring, each necklace, every antique brooch and hat pin. They were family jewels, and the ring that would one day be Delia’s stood out from the rest: a delicate platinum setting, with indigo sapphires on either side of a large, sparkling diamond.

The ring had traveled all the way from Belarus a century earlier, sewn into a young bride’s petticoat. My mother-in-law’s own mother had worn it casually, while doing the dishes.

As soon as I saw it, I understood what my mother-in-law meant about the pleasure of exquisite possessions. Everything else in the room faded, and I felt a warm, new space open up in my chest.

My mother-in-law suggested I try it on. My fingers were too small, and the ring slid around. She smiled kindly. On her left hand, her ring and pinky fingers were little nubs, down to the knuckles, a birth defect she never hid. Instead, she had adorned that hand with beloved rings, ever since my husband was a child and easily embarrassed.

“Let’s find something more fitting for you,” she said. She tugged the ring off my hand easily and dug out from a silk bag a smaller one: a slim gold band, with a tiny, dusky stone at the center. It fit perfectly, and I accepted it reluctantly.

• •

In the middle of the night, Hugh snoring peacefully beside me, I woke up thinking about the ring—not my old one, but Delia’s.

Why did Delia still wear it? Perhaps because she still loved my husband a little, as I had for a while after he left.

Knowing Delia, I think she just realized what the ring was worth.

 

The weekend stretched out pleasantly for me and Hugh. We began Saturday morning with what my daughter calls our “bougey-white-couple-ritual”: walk to our favorite coffee shop, meander the farmers market to buy cheese and flowers, end up at home with the newspaper on our laps for the entire afternoon. I let my daughter tease us because she’s right. I have the life I want, and I have no illusions; I’m very lucky to be a dull little human on this sorrowful, magical planet.

At home, I made another pot of coffee while Hugh arranged the gladiolas in a vase he’d brought into our home from his previous marriage. It’s made of a humble-blue clay, and any flowers that sit in it seem to explode with the vividness of triumphant fireworks. Watching him cut the stems of the flowers, I felt warm and happy.

But underneath this pleasant feeling was an anxiety I was not quite used to anymore. I’d practically held my breath during our morning walk through the market, suspecting we’d run into Delia, now that I’d seen her again after so long. We didn’t see her, but now, from there on the dining room table, Anna Karenina loomed up at me, a thick brick of accusation.

 

In addition to being a fan of expensive jewelry, my mother-in-law loved a good gut feeling. She claimed she’d known JFK was not long for this world the day of his inauguration. (“It was the way he looked at Jackie,” she said, “as if from very far away.”) Regarding the caterer I wanted to choose for the wedding because of an article in the local paper, my mother-in-law suggested her cake would be beautiful but disappointing. (“That woman does not look as if she has ever enjoyed eating.”) Two days before my wedding day, she stopped by my apartment without calling ahead, something she did only when she had something important to tell me—or warn me about.

As it happened, I had company. A college friend who’d been invited to the wedding. He’d driven back to town early to suggest I might be making a terrible mistake by getting married to a man we both knew as predictable and stubborn.

This friend was handsome in a boyish way I’d always overlooked but suddenly found appealing. As I described the quietness of my current life, I felt a new recognition set in: that I’d been going through the motions with my soon-to-be-husband, not fully living in my body. My friend gazed at my lips while I talked. When he touched my hand as I poured his third glass of wine, pleasant chills shot through my limbs. Then he declared his love for me over my famous lasagna. He said he’d always loved me, in fact.

Nothing this dramatic had ever happened to me. I was swept right off my lukewarm feet and out of my clothes. It didn’t occur to me until later that I was trying on a more glittery role just to see how it suited me.

My old friend and I were finished and staring awkwardly into each other’s eyes when the doorbell rang and my mother-in-law called my name from the hall. Her voice became more urgent, and it filled me with dread. I didn’t answer.

The passion that had so recently consumed me drained quickly from my body, leaving room for guilt. As well as a surging repulsion for the man lying smugly in my bed.

Even though I now knew with every part of me that it was a terrible idea, I informed him I would be getting married as planned, and he didn’t try to argue.

At my reception, after the delicious cake had been obliterated and the dance floor had been waltzed upon, as I thought blearily about the man I had considered running off with two days before and who was now dancing languidly with my cousin Jenny, my mother-in-law plunked herself down in the seat next to me and proceeded to tell me why she’d stopped by my apartment:

She had decided I should have the ring I’d loved after all. And that she would have it re-sized for my finger.

“It came to me in a dream,” she said, “that you deserve it more than anyone.” Her voice was urgent, but her smile was tense with worry. “In the dream you were alone on one of those horrible, tasteless cruise ships. You were crying on the deck, and I was calling to you from shore.”

Again I was consumed with guilt.

“I think you should hold on to the ring a bit longer,” I said, patting her own ring-bound fingers. I imagined I would earn it back, with my faithfulness to her son. She would sense when the time had come.

Her face relaxed.

“You know the funniest thing happened after I knocked on your door,” she said.

“Oh?” My heart thudded, but it wasn’t what I expected.

“Your neighbor came out to see what the fuss was about. What a stunning woman! I told her I was certain I’d met her before, but now I think that’s because she reminds me of Greta Garbo. I liked her very much. I think you and Sam will, too.”

The stunning neighbor was Delia. Until my mother-in-law pointed her out, I’d barely noticed her—she was the kind of woman who blended in until she didn’t blend at all.

 

After college, my daughter lived for a year in France, working as a nanny. She returned home with a view of Americans that has stuck around family conversation: we’re particularly selfish, self-absorbed, and narrow-minded. I do not disagree. What I tell my daughter, when we talk about these things, is that we’re also very good at punishing ourselves; I don’t mean our criminal justice system—that is a national embarrassment and tragedy—I mean we create arbitrary, individual standards and hate ourselves when we can’t live up to them.

Hugh was already deep into the arts section, and I had the crossword in front of me. But I sighed and hefted my assigned reading from the table into my lap.

Hugh chuckled.

“Something funny?” I said.

He shook his head, his brown eyes soft and understanding. “Just admiring your struggle.”

Without comment, I lugged Anna Karenina up to my face. We were in the countryside. Levin was mowing his field and enjoying it. Immediately began this little internal back-and-forth: It’s an important book, and I should know about it. Also: I am a grown woman, and life is short; I should be able to read whatever the hell I want.

I put the book back down, reached for my phone, and Googled Tolstoy. (Americans are also very good at distracting themselves.)

For minutes or hours, I disappeared into a Tolstoy-Internet rabbit hole and resurfaced, feeling indignant.

“Hugh, did you know Tolstoy could not have written his books without his wife, who not only raised their children pretty much single-handedly, she stayed up late at night—while he slept—to transcribe his practically illegible scribbles?”

“Hmmm,” Hugh mumbled.

Clearly, that line of thinking wasn’t going anywhere on a beautiful Saturday morning, reserved for the joys of leisure. Hugh is endlessly patient and kind, and often very funny. But our talk tends to maintain a steady level, while in my conversations with women, there’s always a satisfying energy thrumming below the surface, one that pushes us toward each other, diminishing any separation between us.

I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if Delia might find the story of Tolstoy’s burdened wife more interesting.

 

Delia raised Peter and Kitty pretty much on her own, even while she was married to my husband. A real estate agent when he and I were married, he was expanding into larger-scale acquisitions—not just single-family homes but land for development—by the time he left me. And he had begun to have a lot of out-of-state business meetings. Of course, Delia couldn’t have thought she was snagging a doting family man, at least not if she’d been paying attention all those years she was hanging around our apartment.

After we got married and my husband moved into my small rental, we started inviting Delia over for dinner. She brought her vitality with her, as well as her library, which she loved to lend to friends so we could talk about “beautiful ideas, not just the weather.” My husband loved these get-togethers, where he drank and joked, and made a general impression of charming brilliance, while I served the underrated hors d’oeuvres and wiped up wine and coffee spills from our one good rug.

When I became pregnant, Delia was always around. She took enormous interest in my nutrition, and regularly brought over “treats” that were packed with the kind of grains she believed our oldest ancestors relied on to maintain good health in harsh climates. I did not buy into dietary ideology, but I’d eat the cookies or nut bars in front of her because, in her presence, they actually took on a superior flavor. Once she was gone, I might as well have been eating cardboard.

It wasn’t just the taste of food that Delia altered. She carried a pleasant glow with her into any room, casting aside shadows both real and metaphorical. When my daughter was a newborn and I was a sleep-deprived wraith of my former self, my husband was always working.

He had struggled for years to get his name on For Sale signs across the county, and now that he was a father, he said it was more important than ever to get his “brand imprinted on the landscape.” Which meant that he was often gone on weekends and evenings, leaving me with our tiny child and what someone would now probably diagnose as postpartum depression. At least, I reasoned, his business seemed to be picking up, finally.

During this time, Delia dropped by once or twice a week to sit with me and provide adult conversation. She’d rock my baby to sleep so I could take a shower or walk outside alone. She sang lullabies in a soothing tone I never achieved myself, and I’m fairly certain my daughter’s perfect pitch is all thanks to Delia, not to me or my husband.

One thing I never told Delia: as much as I loved her company, I was aware of holding something back. Not reading the books she suggested. Throwing away her carob brownies after she’d gone home. I never told her how I cried sometimes when I was alone, or about the lapse before my wedding—though I often thought of my fling while in her company and had a feeling she’d understand.

Delia held back, too. Of course she did. She kept perhaps the biggest secret she could have from me. For years I felt sad about what we didn’t share.

When I described to Cynthia Schueren this sense of loss, our friendship was new, we were still young (well, middle-aged), and she looked at me steadily. “You shared a husband. Without your permission.”

“When you put it that way—”

“When you put it any way, you don’t owe Delia sympathy. She’s not your client.” Cynthia is a lawyer, and right about everything. Still, I thought forgiveness was the best path forward.

“I understand why my husband loved her.”

“See, you don’t need to do that. You don’t always have to be understanding.”

 

I was about to go back into Anna, when a text came through from Cynthia:

“I’m in love.”

Cynthia is a compassionate woman, infinitely loyal to her wife. But she always has a crush on someone: the handsome butcher who gives her secret discounts, the young woman at the bookstore who always puts the perfect novel in her hands. I waited for her to explain this newest enchantment.

“It’s Levin,” she wrote. “Levin is my ideal husband.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Take Tolstoy’s!” she wrote.

I grimaced at my phone.

I like the women in my book group, but I was initially resistant to the whole idea of it. When Cynthia first invited me, I immediately declined. To me, a book club meant only one thing: a bunch of gossipy old women getting sloshed on wine.

Cynthia had laughed. “You love wine and gossip.” She has a mischievous smile. “And you’re not getting any younger.”

I felt caught out. “OK,” I told her.

I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s commitment to literature. To be sure, there is a lot of drinking and gossiping, too, but against a backdrop of intellectual warmth and vigor. We devoted our first year of reading to Edith Wharton, who became my literary crush, the second year to best-selling literary fiction. I did not argue with Cynthia when she proposed a year of Russian literature, but I did confess to her, alone, that Delia had been a devotee, and I still had issues when it came to Tolstoy.

Cynthia tried to be kind. She squeezed my hand. “Now, I don’t know a lot about Tolstoy, but as far as I understand he didn’t write Anna Fucking Karenina for Delia, did he?”

I laughed. I shook my head. Oh, how I adored Cynthia for saying that.

But there was still a serious voice, located in the part of my body that held on tightly to stuff it shouldn’t, and while I laughed, the voice whispered, Yes.

 

When our son was born, my husband wanted to move to a bigger house.

Ultimately though, it was Delia who moved first, to the farmhouse she still occupies and that my husband sold to her. He initially wanted it for us, but I rejected the idea of country living. I suppose they fell in love with each other when he was walking her through its empty rooms, singing its praises. Perhaps she loved him because he loved the house, and perhaps he loved the idea of her living in the place he’d already imagined owning. Of course I didn’t piece this together until later, and I’m not even sure I have it absolutely right. I never saw my husband on a tour, but I knew him enough to understand he was at his best when he knew he had a sure thing.

The house is on a lovely, windy hill, looking out over dairy farms and evergreen forests. Since we had just one car in the early days of our marriage, I did not often get out to see Delia with my children.

We bought a house right downtown. I could push the stroller to story time at the library and pick up groceries at the co-op, where I would sometimes run into Delia. Running into Delia—before the divorce—was always something the children looked forward to, because she kept small gifts for kids in her purse: foreign coins and Mexican Worry Dolls and barrettes she’d made by braiding colorful ribbons. Usually we’d stop for a while to talk over coffee or tea. Leaving her, I’d inevitably feel better than I had before.

Eventually, the children began school. I finished my master’s degree and converted an addition at the back of our house to an office for my private practice. We purchased another car, but I rarely used it, accustomed as I had become to getting around on foot and by bike. Delia began to throw big parties once or twice a year, and I always brought the artichoke dip that she never touched. I had a feeling it annoyed her, my insistence on bringing dairy into her home, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit I had derived a small amount of pleasure from her disdain, though at the time I couldn’t have actually told you why.

My mother-in-law never again referred to the ring she’d wanted to re-size for me, and I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t know how. Instead, during those years, and for a while after my husband left, I wore the ring she’d given me. And whenever I looked at it, I thought about beautiful things.

 

Hugh and I finished the crossword together, and he went outside to his gardening. In the late afternoon, he drove to his daughter’s house to spend the evening babysitting his grandchildren, and I relaxed into the luxurious silence of our house.

I held the book in my lap for a full minute before opening it again.

Levin in his fields, Levin in his thoughts. I could still feel myself making an effort to read the words, to follow along with his progress. So many words, when I would think fewer words would do. I couldn’t read them without imagining them in Delia’s head; I couldn’t read them without seeing the images they created as if they’d been created for her. Outside, the clouds rolled in, and I turned on the lamp beside me.

I don’t remember when I fell asleep, only waking up to Hugh kissing my forehead and removing the book very gently from my hands.

 

Days passed. I’d read a page or two a night, and that was it. Each day I woke up with a sense of moral and personal failure.

The morning of our book club meeting, however, I woke up with a raging headache. I cancelled my appointments for the day.

Hugh said, “Do you think it has to do with Anna Karenina?”

“Of course it does.” The words came out sharp, but truthfully I felt pleased that he was interested in my psychology. “I am quite aware of the power I’m giving to this classic work of literature.”

“Too much power,” Hugh said, kindly.

“Cynthia would agree.”

But after taking a codeine, I sank into bed with my eye mask on with this thought: isn’t art meant to be this powerful? Isn’t art, when it moves us, one of the few true talismans humans have?

When I woke again, it was almost eleven, Hugh was gone, and so was my headache.

It felt silly at first, but I held a little prayer in my head, the kind of thing I don’t really believe but still maybe kind of believe: a counter-curse or opening-of-my-heart mantra. I thought of Delia’s sparkling ring. I thought of lighting incense and laughed at myself. As I said, we live in a town of old hippies.

And then I began to read.

In the silence of my house, in the comfort of my bed, Levin’s movements and desires took shape. All the words on the page began to come together, very slowly, and then to feel necessary. After a while I forgot I was reading them. I simply disappeared as Levin disappeared into his labor.

By the time Hugh came home, I was late for my book club. There were texts from Cynthia on my phone. It didn’t matter. I was still in bed, still reading, sweaty from the humid air and the effort the book was exerting on me. I wasn’t finished, but I was, at last, sunk into the world Tolstoy had created.

When I emerged from that world, what a joy to find it now belonged to me. I savored each step while I walked to Cynthia’s house, knowing I’d be too late for the discussion but still in time for the wine and gossip. Anna Karenina was mine, Tolstoy, too. Delia belonged to her cookbooks, her murder mysteries, to my fractured memories—not to me. I allowed myself a good, satisfying minute of deep resentment. The idea that Delia and I had shared anything significant was a pretty and convenient illusion. And I’d used it to keep myself from hating her.

When I ran into her at the grocery store, I longed to be able to tell her that—finally—I loved what she’d once loved.

Now that that I finally loved it, now that it was mine, I didn’t want to tell her at all.