THE GUEST COTTAGE
Outside her daughter’s bedroom window, the apple tree was a cloud of white blossoms in the soft glow from the front porch light. Here on the second floor of their stylish suburban Boston house, Lacey slept with her nightlight on and her arms around one of her stuffed animals. At ten, Lacey clung to childhood, and Sophie was glad.
Because it helps me believe we’re still a happy family? Sophie wondered.
She left Lacey’s door fully open; Lacey liked it that way.
Jonah had left his door to the hall slightly ajar, so Sophie slipped quietly inside. Her fifteen-year-old son was sprawled on his bed, wires hanging from the earbuds he wore even as his steady breathing told her he was sound asleep.
These children, she thought. This generation will all be deaf by thirty.
His backpack leaned against his desk. He would have done his homework and packed it up for tomorrow. Jonah was good that way. His computer screen was dark. She flirted with the idea of checking to see what he’d been doing last but decided against it. She didn’t want to wake him, and besides, one of his video games lay blinking on the floor next to the bed. He’d probably spent the last hour vanquishing monsters. She smiled at the thought as she gazed at her firstborn, her precious boy. He was growing up, growing away from her, often gaping at her as if he thought she was hopelessly out of her mind for suggesting he put on a sweater or take his rain gear.
Jonah wore pajama bottoms and no top. His bony ribs pressed against his skin like staves of a boat. He ate constantly and gained inches, but the rosy plumpness of his childhood was gone.
She wanted to lean over and kiss his forehead but was afraid she’d wake him. Instead, she pulled a light blanket up over him. In response, he made a snuffling noise and rolled onto his side. She left the room, closing the door behind her.
This was her favorite time of day, seeing her children tucked safely in bed, sleeping, dreaming, while the house itself seemed to yawn and calm and sink into its own satisfied state of rest.
Then why, Sophie asked herself, am I so increasingly uneasy—so mentally itchy?
Padding barefoot down the stairs, she thought, as she had so many times, how she never would have chosen to buy this particular house. To Sophie, it was too angular, too spare. But Zack was an architect. He had designed it. He called it clean, fresh, Zen. Over the years, Sophie had managed to soften and cozy it with deep and comfy armchairs, cracked antique wooden wardrobes placed to make hidden niches, colorful fat vases of flowers, and wooden cases of well-read books. The only room Zack would call state-of-the-art now was the kitchen, and she supposed she was happy enough about that. All the newest gleaming chrome and plastic technology that he gave her for her birthdays and Christmas did come in handy. She loved to cook, and Zack appreciated complicated, unusual food. The children, not so much. On the nights when Sophie knew for certain that Zack wouldn’t be home, she let them have cheeseburgers, pizzas, meat loaf with mashed potatoes.
She glanced at the clock. It was after nine. Where was he? He had promised to be home for dinner tonight. He hadn’t even phoned.
She fretted, mildly. This happened a lot, was happening more and more these days. Zack’s clients were some of Boston’s youngest, wealthiest, and most demanding, and if they wanted an evening consultation, they got it. When she knew he was working late, she enjoyed it, sharing an easy meal with the kids, then curling up with a good book. But he always told her when he wouldn’t be home for dinner.
With a slight sense of anxiety, she went into his study and woke up his computer. She wanted to know: had he told her he was coming home, or had she forgotten that he wasn’t? She did not want to believe she hadn’t remembered. It wasn’t that she and Zack had become adversaries in their marriage; it wasn’t that she prided herself on getting everything right all the time—or it wasn’t all that, only that. She needed to know he was okay.
The family had computers all over the house. Hers was at the desk in the nook in the kitchen where she kept the calendar of the family’s doctor appointments, the kids’ sports schedules, school conferences. Lacey used that computer, too. At ten, she still needed supervision, and she wasn’t as addicted to the technology as Zack was. Jonah’s computer was on his desk in his room—he had to have it to do homework. Their agreement was that he would leave his bedroom door unlocked so that Sophie could stick her head in and make spot checks. She feared he would wander onto porno sites, but so far he spent all his free time on video games.
Zack’s desktop hummed. Sophie settled in his massive leather chair and searched until she found his calendar. The tempestuous winter was finally over and builders could get out on ladders and scaffoldings and return to work. All his clients wanted everything done at once. More and more Zack shared less and less of his work life with Sophie, but she had been married to him for sixteen years and this was a fact that didn’t change.
Today, April 10. Zack had typed: Remember L bday.
L? Probably Lila, his associate. Lila was twenty-eight, a pretty career girl with an unfettered life and her own BMW convertible. She had no children, a fabulous wardrobe, and an adorable laugh. She considered Zack an architectural genius, unlike Sophie, who considered him a man who should spend more time with his family.
Yes, he should remember Lila’s birthday. Lila was an important colleague, young, bright, and energetic. Sophie wasn’t uneasy or jealous—she herself had worked as bookkeeper for Zack when he first started out. She knew only too well that when he was working he often lost his charismatic charm and often lost his temper, too. He could be bossy, dictatorial, critical, and a social climber. He was a perfectionist—well, she was afraid she probably was, too—and single-minded in his ambition. Sophie wouldn’t want to work with Zack now. Being married to him was quite enough.
She focused on the calendar. Nothing there for tonight.
For tomorrow, April 11, Zack had typed: Discuss Div with S.
Her heart banged. She sat back in the chair, unable to take her eyes away from those three letters.
Div? The first word that leapt to mind was divorce, but not even ultra-organized Zack would enter a discussion about divorce on his calendar. Would he?
She closed her eyes. She controlled her breathing. She forced herself to be here now, in this quiet house with her children safe and asleep.
Div. Could he mean diversifying stocks? Maybe, but Zack handled all that without Sophie’s input.
Div. Diversion? Maybe he wanted them all to go on a trip together. Certainly the family needed to do something like that. It had been far too long since they’d done anything together as a family. But really, that was a stretch; Zack wouldn’t ever call a vacation a diversion.
Dividend! Ah. Maybe a dividend, a windfall, had come in on one of Zack’s stocks and he wanted to discuss how to spend it with Sophie.
Right, that was it. Div meant anything but divorce. Who was she kidding? All marriages had their ups and downs, but in the past year or so, the Anderson marriage had been on a steady slide toward a new low. Sometimes she thought she was hanging on only for the sake of the children.
She found Zack less and less appealing, more—
The front door slammed, making her jump guiltily. She heard the f
amiliar sounds of her husband dropping his briefcase on the hall table, his footsteps toward the kitchen, veering off to his study. Apprehensive but determined, she stayed where she was.
“What are you doing in here?” Zack asked, loosening his tie as he stood in the doorway.
Sophie studied her husband. Blond hair, blue eyes, former high school football hero, this year he had turned forty. He’d started using Grecian Formula. He bought a vintage Mustang convertible.
“Hello to you, too,” she said, cocking her head, smiling to take the edge off her words.
Zack’s voice was cool. “Sophie.”
“You didn’t call,” she reminded him.
Zack made an impatient sound and turned away.
Her fingertips were tingling. She was angry, frightened, and oddly eager, as if she were about to dive into a strange lake whose depth she didn’t know. The children, she told herself. Take care of the children.
“Are you hungry? I could—”
“I’m tired. Going to bed.” Zack stepped into the hall, still not looking at her, and all at once Sophie was trembling.
She went to the doorway and took hold of his arm. “Zack. Zack, please, wait. What does div mean?”
Now she had his attention. As she felt her husband’s eyes on her, a fast and familiar sense of being judged swept over her. Okay, she was in jeans and a T-shirt, barefoot, and she didn’t know when she’d last combed her hair, but she kept her blond hair short so that it was always more or less tidy. She was four years younger than Zack, she was slender, she was pretty enough.
Sophie repeated, “What does div mean?” She gestured to his desk. “I found it here on your calendar. ‘Discuss div with S.’ ”
“Oh, Sophie, do you really want to get into this now?” Zack sagged, signaling his exhaustion.
She knew he was not that tired. “I do, Zack. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep or even remain sane until you tell me.” She gazed at her husband, trying to read his expression.
He shook off her arm, came into the room, and sank into an armchair. “Fine. Let’s do this. Sophie, I want a divorce.”
In spite of her suspicions, she was shocked. “But what about the children?” she asked. Jonah and Lacey had no way to shield themselves from pain. Lacey was still sweet and cheerful, but recently, Sophie had noticed changes in Jonah that concerned her. His grades were still good, but he was crashing in soccer and baseball, sports he’d always played. His coaches were all over him. If he had to deal with his father’s desertion . . .
“Hey, I’m not divorcing them,” Zack responded, his tone very nearly amused. He was stressed right now, but in his eyes, in his posture, was an obviously smugness. He knew something she didn’t know.
“Are you divorcing me?” She’d done it: the words, those life-changing words, were out in the air between them. Flashing. In neon.
Zack shook his head impatiently. “Come on. Admit it: you -haven’t been happy, either.”
Was that true? At this moment, Sophie wasn’t sure. She was a good mother, an efficient and creative housewife, a good friend . . . but happy? The palms of her hands went damp; she rubbed them on her jeans.
“Is it Lila?” she asked. She sat on a chair across from her husband. If he wanted to, he could reach across and touch her, he could tell her he was sorry, she could suggest they start over . . .
“Does it matter who it is?” Zack countered.
“You could fire Lila, and we could start over,” Sophie offered.
Zack flinched. “I don’t want to fire Lila. I love her. She loves me.”
“Wow.” Sophie recoiled, trying to absorb his words. He was so very far ahead of her in this situation. “Wow, Zack. I don’t know what to say.”
Zack snorted with impatience. “You see how it is with you? Why can’t you cry? Call me names? Throw a book at me?”
Sophie grimaced. “So it’s my fault.”
Zack slumped. Ran his hand through his thick, sandy hair. Leaned toward Sophie, his elbows on his knees, a pose she’d seen so often, the honest man trying to close a deal. “Look, Sophie. I’m not trying to be a monster here. I know Lila’s young. She’s new. You and I have been married for sixteen years and the—the passion, or whatever you want to call it—has faded. You know I don’t want to break anyone’s heart. I don’t want to be the villain.”
“And yet you’re screwing Lila.” Sophie studied her husband’s face, seeing the charm, the force, the concentration he could focus like a raptor on its prey, all of this aimed at her. Once she had admired him for this, adored him for his power. He had changed—or she had. “You say you love her.”
Zack gave Sophie a pleading look. “She makes me feel young again.”
Sophie nodded. “I can understand that.” After a moment, she said, “I don’t want the children hurt.”
“Christ, Sophie, do you think I do?”
No, Sophie thought, Zack wouldn’t want to hurt the children. On the other hand, he never thought of his children unless she prompted him. He had never been a natural family man. She took a deep breath, gathering herself. If Zack was the hunter, Sophie was the mother lion, shielding her cubs. Protecting the family.
This was humiliating, but maybe the right thing to do.
Sophie forced a pleasant tone. “I was planning to discuss this with you—Susie Swenson called yesterday. An old friend of mine from college. She has a summer home on Nantucket she wants to rent out for July and August. They call it the guest cottage, because the main house was next door, but they’ve sold that off and subdivided the land. Whatever, this place sounds like a mansion: six bedrooms, three baths, everything furnished from linens to lobster crackers. I thought it might be good for you and me—and the kids, of course, but especially for you and me. We could walk on the beach. Drink margaritas. Get in touch with each other again.” She watched her husband as she spoke. His eyes did not light up; his face did not brighten.
“How much?” Zack asked, avoiding her eyes.
She named a sum and Zack snorted. “Nantucket.” He shook his head. “No. No, I’m not paying that kind of money.”
“Do you want to go?” She reached across and touched his arm. “Would you like to try again?”
He patted her hand, as if it were the morose muzzle of a clingy old dog, and drew away. “No. And I don’t think it’s fair for you to expect me to spend that much for you and the kids. You and the kids can stay in the house. I’ll move in with Lila.”
“For how long?”
“Well, for good. Now that we’ve gotten it out in the open, I think we should proceed. First, a separation. I’ll move in with Lila while you and I make the arrangements for the divorce.” She observed his eagerness. He was ready to jump out of the chair and leave the house this very moment.
“No, Zack, wait. Give us some time. We’re a family. Maybe—things—will change.” The idea of the house on Nantucket shimmered like a beacon in the dark confusion of her marriage. She’d been dreaming about it ever since Susie called. She wanted this. She needed this. “I’m going to take the kids to Nantucket for July and August.”
Zack bridled. “Where are you going to get the money for that kind of rent?”
Sophie smiled. It was the first time she’d smiled during this conversation. “Aunt Fancy,” she said.
Aunt Fancy’s motto had been: “If I’ve gotta go down, I’m gonna go down in style.” She used the last of her inheritance to buy a new wardrobe and have her hair colored red when her husband left her in 1970 when she was just twenty-four. These changes promptly attracted the attention of Fred Lattimer, a wealthy divorced man twelve years older, who wooed Fancy, married her, and gave her the four children for whom she’d been longing.
Sophie had always admired Aunt Fancy, who lived with so much more flair and gusto than Sophie’s own mother, Hester. Hester’s idea of dressing up was putting on her white coat and stethoscope. Hester could save lives in the emergency room, but she had no sympathy for malingerers. If you wanted a bit of wickedness and fun, you went to Aunt Fancy. For Band-Aids and a healthy meal, you went to Sophie’s mom.
Sophie wished she could now run to Aunt Fancy, who’d probably suggest they go out to a bar together and pick up some men. “If the horse throws you, climb right back on” was another motto of Aunt Fancy’s. She had a lot of mottos.
Fabulous Aunt Fancy had died on her sixtieth birthday while parachuting from an airplane. On the up side, it was exactly the way Fancy Lattimer would have liked to go. But Sophie had counted on her aunt having a long life, serving as a role model and a playmate for Sophie as she got older.
In her will, Aunt Fancy left most of her money—and there was a lot of it—to her four children. But she also left a nice big chunk of money for Sophie to use for what Aunt Fancy called “mad money.”
When Sophie started dating, or what passed for dating at age fifteen, her mother sat her down to discuss birth control. Aunt Fancy had given her a pretty quilted coin purse with a flower-shaped clasp. Inside were tucked two ten-dollar bills.
“When I was growing up,” Aunt Fancy told Sophie, “my mother made certain I carried mad money. All the girls carried mad money, which came in handy if some guy had us out in a car and thought he had us trapped, or if he got fresh during a movie and tried to put his hand up our dress. We always had money for a taxi and a way home back then. It gave us independence.”
Mad money. Sophie was certainly mad at Zack. She was also mad in general—demented, flustered, heartbroken, mentally blitzed, psychologically wacko. Sophie had always been a cautious person, a good girl. The idea of spending her inheritance to rent a house, sight unseen, on Nantucket, a resort island she had only visited on day trips, was downright epic for her.
“I’m going to do it,” Sophie said aloud, to herself as much as to Zack. She left him standing in his office and went off to find her cell before she changed her mind. She phoned Susie.
“Susie, I want the house.”
“Really?” Susie squeaked with surprise. She hesitated. “Look. I have to be honest with you. One of the reasons I don’t want to go through a rental agent is that they will take a big chunk of money for a commission. This year I need all the money I can get, and I don’t want to share it with my spendthrift cousin Ivan. But we can talk about that another time. Another reason I’d like to do this privately is that not many people would rent a place with a family member stuck in the apartment attached to the house.”
“A family member,” Sophie repeated.
“It’s my grandfather, but not the one who bought the property on Nantucket. The other one, Connor Swenson. He moved in this winter after our grandmother died. He’s a nice old guy, perfectly harmless, I promise, but he’s kind of let himself go in his grief. Plus, he was a farmer in Iowa and he totally doesn’t get the whole island thing. I’ve been out to visit him a lot, but he pretty much keeps to himself. He’s not crazy, I swear on my life,” Suzy continued, “but he’s sad and perhaps a bit confused. He’s sort of holed up in the apartment. I can’t ask him to move out.”
“Do you want us to do anything to help him?” asked Sophie. “Buy him groceries, drive him to the library, that sort of thing?”
“Not at all. He brought his old pickup truck. He buys his own groceries, cooks his own food, and as far as I can tell, spends his time watching television, doing jigsaw puzzles, and whittling.”
“Whittling. You know, carving.”
“I didn’t know people still whittled. Does he whistle while he whittles?” Sophie’s mind was all over the place; she was light-headed with excitement.
“So you don’t mind if he’s hanging out back there?” Susie asked.
“I don’t see why,” Sophie said.
Sophie and Susie were friends, so there was no need for any kind of legal contract. Sophie agreed to send Susie a check and Susie said she’d send Sophie the keys and a map to the house.
Aunt Fancy would have approved.
Copyright © 2015 by Nancy Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.