A Good Marriage – Kimberly McCreight

I never meant for any of this to happen. That’s a stupid thing to say. But it is true. And obviously, I didn’t kill anyone. Would never, could never. You know that. You know me better than anyone. Have I made my share of mistakes? Definitely. I’ve lied, been selfish. I’ve hurt you. That’s what I regret most of all. That I caused you pain. Because I love you more than anything in this world. You know that, right? That I love you? I hope so. Because that’s all I think about.

And solitary gives you lots of time to think. (Don’t worry—I talked my way into “the box.” That’s what they call solitary. It’s too damn loud out there in the general population. All night long, people talk and scream and argue and mumble nonsense. If you don’t come in here insane, you’ll end up that way. And I’m not insane. I know you know that, too.) Explanations. Would they make a difference? I can at least start with the why.

Because this is so much harder than I thought it would be—marriage, life. All of it. It’s so simple at the beginning. You meet someone gorgeous and smart and funny. Somebody who’s better than you—you both know it, at least on some level. You fall in love with them. But you fall even more in love with their idea of you. You feel lucky. Because you are lucky. Then time passes.

You both change too much. You stay too much the same. The truth worms its way out, and the horizon grows dark. Eventually all you’re left with is somebody who sees you for who you really are. And sooner or later, they hold up a mirror and you’re forced to see for yourself. And who the hell can live with that? So you do what you can to survive. You start looking for a fresh pair of eyes. Lizzie JULY 6, MONDAY The sun was sinking lower in the skyscraper forest outside my office window. I imagined myself sitting there at my desk, letting the darkness fully descend. Wondering if tonight it might finally swallow me whole.

How I hated that stupid office. A light in the tall building opposite went on. Soon there would be another—people getting on with their work, their lives. All things considered, it was probably better to accept I was in for another late night. Finally, I reached forward and switched on my light. In the small circle of brightness cast down onto the floor sat the uneaten lunch Sam had packed for me that morning—the special pepper turkey and Swiss on the right rye bread with carrots because he worried, justifiably, that I was vitamin-deficient. Sam had been packing my lunch every day for the eleven years we’d lived together in New York—eight of them married—even on those mornings he never made it to work himself. I gave my uneaten lunch a halfhearted kick as I checked the clock on my computer: 7:17 p.m. It wasn’t even that late yet, but time always crawled for me at Young & Crane.

My shoulders sagged as I tried to focus on the still utterly lackluster response letter to the DOJ that I was revising for another senior associate, one with zero criminal experience. The client was a cell phone battery manufacturer with several board members being investigated for insider trading. It was the typical criminal matter the firm handled: an unexpected wrinkle for a preexisting corporate client. Young & Crane didn’t have a dedicated white-collar criminal practice. Instead, they had Paul Hastings, former chief of the Southern District of New York’s Violent and Organized Crime Unit. And now they had me. Paul had predated me at the US attorney’s office, but he’d been close with my mentor and boss, Mary Jo Brown, who’d insisted four months ago that Paul give me a job at the firm. Paul was an impressive, well-known attorney with decades of experience, but at Young & Crane he always seemed to me like a recently retired racehorse, desperate for the gates to snap back again. M&M’s. That was what I needed to get through the letter, which, despite my best efforts, remained three paragraphs of unpersuasive dodge-and-weave.

There were almost always M&M’s in the overflowing Young & Crane snack cabinet—a perk meant to ease the drudgery of the all-nighters. I was about to go in search of them when an email notification popped up on my cell phone, sitting on the far side of my desk—so it didn’t distract me. The message, to my personal account, was from Millie, and the subject line read “Call Me Back Please.” It was not her first email in the past couple weeks. Millie wasn’t usually this insistent, but it also wasn’t totally without precedent. It didn’t necessarily mean it was an actual emergency. I swiped the message into an “old emails” folder without opening it. I would eventually read it and her other recent ones—I always did eventually— just not tonight. My eyes were still on my cell when my office phone rang. An outside call to my direct line, I could tell from the single ringtone.

Sam, presumably. Not many people had my new direct number. “This is Lizzie,” I answered. “You have a collect call from a New York State correctional facility from …,” a computergenerated male voice intoned, followed by an endless pause. I held my breath. “Zach Grayson,” an actual human voice said, before the message reverted to the automation. “Press one if you agree to accept the charges.” I exhaled, relieved. But Zach … I drew a total blank. Wait—Zach Grayson, from Penn Law? I hadn’t thought about Zach for at least a couple years, not since I’d read that New York Times profile about ZAG, Inc.

, the wildly successful logistics start-up in Palo Alto he was running. ZAG was creating the equivalent of Prime membership for the endless small companies trying to compete with Amazon. Shipping didn’t sound very glamorous, but it was apparently extremely profitable. Zach and I hadn’t actually spoken since graduation. The recorded voice repeated the instruction, warned that I was running out of time. I punched 1 to accept the call. “This is Lizzie.” “Oh, thank God.” Zach exhaled shakily. “Zach, what’s going—” The question was an unprofessional slip.

“Wait, don’t answer that. These calls are all recorded. You know that, right? Even if you’re calling me as an attorney, you shouldn’t assume this conversation is confidential.” Even well-versed attorneys were sometimes comically stupid when acting in legal matters on their own behalf. With criminal matters, they were completely useless. “I don’t have anything to hide,” Zach said, sounding like every lawyer who’d found himself on the wrong side of the law. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Let’s start there.” “Well, I am at Rikers, so …,” Zach said quietly. “I’ve been better.

” I could not remotely imagine Zach at Rikers, a jail so sprawling it occupied its own island. It was a ruthless place where Latin Kings, sadistic murderers, and career rapists were held perilously alongside the guy awaiting trial for selling a dime bag of weed. Zach was not a big guy. He’d also always been kind of, well, meek. He’d get ripped apart in Rikers. “What have you been charged with? And I mean only the facts of the charge, not what happened.” It was that important not to disclose anything incriminating, and that easy to forget. Once, my office had built an entire prosecution around a single recorded jailhouse conversation. “Uh, assaulting a police officer.” Zach sounded embarrassed.

“It was an accident. I was upset. Someone grabbed my arm and I jerked back. My elbow hit an officer in the face and I gave him a bloody nose. I feel bad, but obviously I didn’t do it on purpose. I had no idea he was even behind me.” “Was this at, like, a bar or something?” I asked. “A bar?” Zach sounded confused, and I felt my cheeks flush. It was a weird leap. A bar wasn’t where most people’s problems started.

“Um, no, not a bar. It was at our house in Park Slope.” “Park Slope?” That was my neighborhood, or close to my neighborhood. Technically, we lived in Sunset Park. “We moved to Brooklyn from Palo Alto four months ago,” he said. “I sold my company, stepped away completely. I’m launching a venture here. Entirely new territory.” His tone had turned wooden. Zach had always been that way, though, a bit awkward.

A weirdo, my law school roommate Victoria used to call him, and worse, in her less charitable moments. But I’d liked Zach. Sure, he was a little nerdy, but he was dependable, smart, a good listener, and refreshingly direct. He was also as relentlessly driven as me, which I’d found comforting. Zach and I had other things in common, too. When I arrived at Penn Law I was still emerging from my grief-hardened shell, the one I’d been tucked inside since I’d lost both my parents at the end of high school. Zach had lost his father, too, and he knew what it meant to pull yourself up by your working-class bootstraps. At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, not everyone did. “I live in Park Slope, too,” I offered. “On Fourth Avenue and Nineteenth Street.

What about you?” “Montgomery Place, between Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West.” Of course. The only time I ever went to that wildly expensive part of Center Slope was to browse (and browse only) at the equally overpriced farmer’s market at Grand Army Plaza. “Why were the police at your house?” I asked. “My wife—” Zach’s voice caught. He was silent for a long moment. “Amanda was, um, at the bottom of the stairs when I got home. It was really late. We’d been at this neighborhood party together earlier in the night, but we’d left separately. Amanda got back before me and when I walked in— Jesus.

There was blood everywhere, Lizzie. More blood than—I almost threw up, honestly. I could barely check for a pulse. And I’m not proud of that. What kind of man is so scared of the sight of blood that he can’t help his own wife?” His wife was dead? Shit. “I’m so sorry, Zach,” I managed. “I got myself to call nine-one-one, luckily,” he pressed on. “And then I did try CPR. But she was already—she’s gone, Lizzie, and I have no idea what happened to her. I told the police that, but they wouldn’t listen, even though I was the one who called them, for Christ’s sake.

I think it was because of this one guy in a suit. He kept eyeballing me from the corner. But it was this other detective who tried to pull me away from Amanda. She was right there on the floor, though, and I couldn’t just leave. I mean, we have a son. How the hell am I going to—” His voice cut out again. “I’m sorry, but you’re the first friendly voice I’ve heard. Honestly, I’m having a hard time holding it together.” “That’s understandable,” I said, and it was. “Anybody there could have seen how upset I was,” he went on.

“They should have given me a minute.” “They should have.” The fact that the police hadn’t was surely a harbinger of bad things to come. They must have already suspected he was responsible for his wife’s death. What better way to keep track of a potential suspect than to lock him away in jail on a lesser charge? “I really need your help, Lizzie,” Zach said. “I need a good—a great lawyer.” This was not the first time a former law school classmate had called for help with a criminal issue. It wasn’t easy to find top-flight criminal defense lawyers, and few Penn Law School graduates practiced criminal law. But people usually wanted help with small matters—DUIs or petty drug possession charges, occasionally white-collar offenses—and always for a family member or friend. They were never calling for themselves, and certainly not from Rikers.

“I can help with that, for sure. I have connections to some of the best criminal defense lawyers in —” “Connections? No, no. I want you.” Fuck. Hang up. Right now. “Oh, I am not remotely the right lawyer for you.” And, thankfully, that was the absolute truth. “I only started working as a defense attorney a few months ago, and all my criminal experience is in white-collar—” “Please, Lizzie.” Zach’s voice was awfully desperate.

But he was a multimillionaire, with countless lawyers at his disposal, surely. Why me? Now that I’d thought about it, Zach and I had drifted apart long before graduation. “You and I both know what’s happening here—I’m probably going to end up fighting for my life. Don’t they always end up blaming the husband? I can’t have some slick suit standing next to me. I need someone who gets it—who knows where I came from. Someone who will do what it takes, whatever it takes. Lizzie, I need you.” Fine, I felt a flush of pride. Being singularly driven had always been my defining characteristic. I certainly wasn’t the smartest student at Stuyvesant High School or undergrad at Cornell or law student at Penn.

But no one was more focused. My parents had taught me the virtue of raw determination. My dad especially, it was true. And our diligence had served us similarly: it was the rope we used to pull ourselves up—and also to hang ourselves by. I still wasn’t taking Zach’s case. “I appreciate the compliment, Zach. I do. But you need someone with homicide experience and the right connections at the Brooklyn DA’s office. I don’t have either.” True, all of it.

“But I can get someone amazing for you. They can be down to see you first thing in the morning, before your arraignment.” “Too late,” Zach said. “I was already arraigned. They denied bail.” “Oh,” I said. “That’s, um, surprising on an assault charge.” “Not if they think I killed Amanda,” Zach said. “That’s got to be where this is headed, right?” “Sounds plausible,” I agreed. “Obviously, I should have called you before the arraignment.

But I was so … in shock after everything happened, I guess. They gave me a public defender,” he said. “He was a nice enough guy, seemed reasonably competent. Earnest, definitely. But if I’m completely honest, I was kind of checked out during the actual proceeding. Like if I pretended the whole thing wasn’t happening, it wouldn’t be. That makes me sound like a moron, I know.” And now was the moment I could have pressed for details—when was he arrested exactly? What was the precise sequence of events that night? All the questions Zach’s lawyer would ask. Except I wasn’t his lawyer, and the last thing I wanted was to be drawn deeper in. “Checking out is a totally human response,” I offered instead.

And in my experience, being accused of a crime did do something to even the most rational people. And being falsely accused? That was something else entirely. “I need to get out of this place, Lizzie.” Zach sounded scared. “Like, immediately.” “Don’t worry. No matter what the prosecution’s strategy, they can’t keep you in Rikers on an assault charge, not under these circumstances. We’ll get you the right lawyer, and they’ll appeal the denial of bail.” “Lizzie,” Zach pleaded. “You are the right lawyer.

” I was not. I was the wrong kind of lawyer, without the right connections. It also wasn’t an accident that I’d never worked a homicide case, and I planned to keep it that way. But even taking that whole issue aside, my life was already out of control: the last thing I needed was to get mixed up in some old friend’s shitshow. And, if nothing else, Zach’s situation sounded like exactly that. “Zach, I’m sorry, but I—” “Lizzie, please,” he whispered, sounding frantic now. “I’ll be honest, I am fucking terrified. Could you maybe come down and see me at least? We could talk about it?” Damn it. I was not representing Zach, no matter what. But his wife was dead, and we were old friends.

Maybe I could go see him. It might even be easier for Zach to accept why I couldn’t be his lawyer if I told him face-to-face. “Okay,” I said finally. “Great,” Zach said, sounding way too relieved. “Tonight? Visiting hours are until nine p.m.” I checked the clock: 7:24 p.m. I’d have to move fast. I looked again at the draft letter on my computer screen.

Then I thought of Sam, waiting at home for me. Now I wouldn’t be at the office late like I said I’d be. Maybe that was reason enough to go see Zach at Rikers. “I’m on my way,” I said. “Thank you, Lizzie,” Zach said. “Thank you.”

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