The Wife – Alafair Burke

The first piece of trouble was a girl named Rachel. Sorry, not a girl. A woman named Rachel. Even teenagers are called young women now, as if there is something horribly trivial about being a girl. I still have to correct myself. At whatever moment I transformed from a girl to a woman, when I might have cared about the difference, I had other things to worry about. Jason told me about the Rachel incident the same day it happened. We were at Lupa, seated at our favorite table, a found pocket of quiet in the back corner of the crowded restaurant. I only had two things to report from my day. The handyman fixed the hinge on the cabinet in the guest bathroom, but said the wood was warping and would eventually need to be replaced. And the head of the auction committee at Spencer’s school called to see if Jason would donate a dinner. “Didn’t we just do that?” he asked, taking a large bite of the burrata we were sharing. “You were going to cook for someone.” Spencer is in the seventh grade at Friends Seminary. Every year the school asks us to donate not only money on top of the extraordinary tuition we pay but also an “item” to be sold at the annual auction.

Six weeks earlier, I opted for our usual contribution at this year’s event: I’d cater a dinner for eight in the highest bidder’s home. Only a few people in the city connected me now to the summer parties I once planned in the Hamptons, so Jason helped boost my ego by driving the price up. I convinced him to stop once my item had “gone” for a thousand dollars. “There’s a new chair of the committee for next year,” I explained. “She wants to get a head start. The woman has too much time on her hands.” “Dealing with someone who fastidiously plans every last detail months in advance? I can’t imagine how awful that must be for you.” He looked at me with a satisfied smile. I was the planner in the family, the one with daily routines and a long list of what Jason and Spencer called Mom Rules, all designed to keep our lives routine and utterly predictable—good and boring, as I like to say. “Trust me.

She makes me look chill.” He feigned a shudder and took a sip of wine. “Want to know what that crowd really needs for an auction? A week in the desert without water. A cot in a local homeless shelter. Or how about a decent lay? We’d raise millions.” I told him the committee had other plans. “Apparently you’re a big enough deal now that people will open up their wallets for a chance to breathe the same air. They suggested dinner with three guests at a—quote—‘socially responsible’ restaurant of your choosing.” His mouth was full, but I could read the thoughts behind his eye roll. When I first met Jason, no one had heard of him other than his students, coworkers, and a couple of dozen academics who shared his intellectual passions.

I never would have predicted that my cute little egghead would become a political and cultural icon. “Hey, look on the bright side. You’re officially a celebrity. Meanwhile, I can’t give myself away without getting rejected.” “They didn’t reject you.” “No, but they did make it clear that you were the member of the Powell family they want to see listed in next year’s brochure.” We finally settled on a lunch, not dinner, with two guests, not three, at a restaurant—period, no mention of its social consciousness. And I agreed to persuade one of the other moms to buy the item when the time came, using our money if necessary. Jason was willing to pay a lot to avoid a meal with strangers. Once our terms were negotiated, he reminded me that he would be leaving the following afternoon to meet with a green energy company based in Philadelphia.

He’d be gone for two nights. Of course, I didn’t need the reminder. I had entered the dates in my calendar—aka the Family Bible —when he first mentioned it. “Would you like to come with me?” Did he actually want me to join him, or had my expression given me away? “We could get a sitter for Spencer. Or he could tag along.” The thought of ever returning to the state of Pennsylvania made my stomach turn. “The chess tournament tomorrow, remember?” I could tell that he did not, in fact, remember. Spencer had little in the way of organized hobbies. He wasn’t a natural athlete and seemed to share Jason’s aversion to group activities. But so far, he was sticking with the chess club.

The subject of his intern, Rachel, did not arise until the waiter brought our pasta: an order of cacio e pepe split between two bowls. Jason let it slip like it was nothing: “Oh, something a little odd happened to me today at work.” “In class?” Jason still taught at NYU during the spring semester, but also had his own corporate consulting company and was a frequent talking head on cable television. In addition, he hosted a popular podcast. My husband had a lot of jobs. “No, at the office. I told you about the interns?” With the university increasingly upset (jealous, Jason thought) about his outside activities, Jason had agreed to start an internship program, where he and his consulting firm would oversee a handful of students each semester. “One of them apparently thinks I’m a sexist pig.” He was grinning as if it were funny, but we were different that way. Jason found conflict amusing, or at least curious.

I avoided it at all costs. I immediately rested my fork against the edge of my bowl. “Please,” he said, waving a flippant hand. “It’s ridiculous, proof that interns create more work than they’re worth.” He smiled the entire time he described the incident. Rachel was in either the first or second year of her master’s study. He wasn’t sure. She was one of the weaker students. He suspected, but wasn’t certain, that Zack—the associate he’d tapped with the job of selecting candidates—had included her for purposes of gender diversity. She entered Jason’s office to deliver a memo she had written about a chain of grocery stores.

She blurted out that her boyfriend had proposed over the weekend, and held up her left hand to show off a giant diamond. “What am I,” Jason asked, “her sorority sister?” “Please tell me you didn’t say that.” Another eye roll, this time slightly less exaggerated. “Of course not. I honestly don’t remember what I said.” “And yet . ?” “She says I was sexist.” “She said this to whom?” I was pretty sure the correct usage was whom. “Why would she say that?” “She went to Zack. These are the kinds of students we’re accepting these days—a graduate student who doesn’t understand the hierarchy at the firm where she works.

She assumes Zack has some kind of power, because he was the one who hired her.” “But why was she complaining?” I noticed a woman at the next table looking in our direction and lowered my voice. “What is she saying happened?” “I don’t know. She started running on about getting engaged. She told Zack I said she was too young to get married. That she needed to live a little first.” Was there something wrong with that? I’d never had a job in a formal office setting. It sounded rude, but not of ensive. I told Jason that there had to be more to it if she was complaining. Another dismissive wave.

“That’s how ridiculous these millennials are. It’s considered sexual harassment even to ask someone about their personal life. But if she barges in my office and starts telling me about her engagement, I can’t say anything without melting the special snowflake.” “So is that what you said? That she was too young and should live a little, or did you call her a special snowflake?” I knew Jason’s harshest opinions about his students. “Of course not. I don’t know. Honestly, I was annoyed by the whole conversation. I think I said something as a joke. Like, ‘Are you sure you’re ready to get locked down?’ Probably that.” It was a phrase I’d heard him use before, about not only marriage but anything that was so good that you wanted to hold on to it forever.

“Lock that down.” We put in an early offer on our house. “It’s priced to sell. We need to lock that down.” A waiter telling us that there were only two more orders of branzino in the kitchen. “We’re good for one. Lock that down.” I could picture him in his office, interrupted by an intern he’d prefer not to supervise. She’s babbling about her engagement. He couldn’t care less.

You’re still in school. You sure you’re ready to lock that down? Jason had a habit of making teasing comments. I asked him again if that was all that happened, if he was sure there wasn’t something else that could have been misconstrued. “You don’t know how sensitive these college students are.” The words burned, even though he didn’t mean them to. I had never attended college. “If Spencer turns out like these micro-aggression asshole whiners, I’ll ground him until he’s forty.” Seeing the expression on my face, he reached for my hand. Spencer actually is special, not a special snowflake. He’s not like these kids who were raised to think they’re extraordinary even though they’re extra-ordinary.

Jason said he was kidding, and I knew he was. And I felt guilty because I realized I—like Rachel the girl intern—was being too sensitive, was feeling too special. “So now what happens?” I asked. Jason shrugged, as if I’d asked what he’d like to donate to the auction. “Zack will deal with it. Thank god the semester’s almost over. But screw her if she thinks she’s getting a recommendation.” As I poured a little more wine into my glass, I really thought that was the only thing at stake in Jason’s interaction with Rachel—whether a graduate student would get a recommendation. It would be four days until I realized how naive I had been. 2 New York City Police Department Omniform System—Complaints May 14 OCCURRENCE LOCATION: 1057 Avenue of the Americas NAME OF PREMISES: FSS Consulting NARRATIVE: Victim states that suspect “encouraged” sexual contact during business appointment.

VICTIM: Rachel Sutton AGE: 24 GENDER: Female RACE: White Victim walked into precinct at 17:32 and asked to file a complaint. She proceeded to report that a coworker, Jason Powell, “encouraged” sexual contact between them. Victim presented calmly and did not appear distraught. When I asked her what type of sexual contact, she said, “He suggested that I should be sexual with him.” When I asked her to explain what she meant by “encouraged” and “suggested,” she did not respond. I asked if there had been any physical contact between them or if he had threatened her or forced her to do anything she did not want to do. She abruptly accused me of not believing her and left the station over my repeated requests that she continue her complaint. CONCLUSION: Forward report to SVU for consideration of further action. SIGNED: L. Kendall 3 The woman who called about Jason donating a meal to next year’s auction was Jen Connington.

I no longer use names when I tell Jason what is happening in the parts of our lives he doesn’t see, because I know he won’t remember them. Jen is mother to Madison and Austin, wife to Theo. A top-three competitor for queen bee of the Friends Seminary Moms and newly appointed chair of the auction committee. When I picked up the phone, she said, “Hey there, Angie.” My name isn’t Angie. To the extent I ever had a nickname, it was Gellie, and only my parents ever used it. I guess women who shorten Jennifer to Jen assume that Angelas are Angies. “Thanks so much for your offer to cater another dinner!!” Exclamation points added. “But we thought you might want a break next year.” We.

I immediately wondered which of the other moms was involved in whatever change was about to be decreed. “Seriously, Jen, it’s the least we can do.” My use of we felt smaller. I immediately imagined her telling Theo over cocktails that night: “How many times does she have to remind us that she used to cater to the rich and famous in the Hamptons?” It was the only real job I ever had. At the time, I was pretty proud of myself, but women like Jen Connington would never stop seeing me as someone who had peaked as the help. “Well, call me a radical feminist, but we thought it was about time for some of the dads to do their equal share, so to speak.” She laughed at her play on the title of Jason’s bestselling book, Equalonomics. “Don’t you think we should convince Jason to come out of hiding?” I had told her I wished he were in hiding. I would see him more often. Jason’s trademark thing was how companies could maximize profits by making corporate decisions based on principles of equality.

It was perfect fodder for liberal Manhattanites—keep your onepercenter perks and be a good, moral person, all at the same time. His book spent nearly a year on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list before it was released in paperback to enjoy another fortyweek run. In the time that passed, the media appearances to promote the book evolved into stints as a talking head, which led to the podcast. And at the suggestion of his best friend, Colin, he started an independent consulting company. I was happy for him—happy for us—but neither of us had adjusted to his newfound celebrity. My catering prize would no longer suffice for our auction give. Jen tried to soften the rejection by returning to her theme of letting Jason do his fair share of the work: “Every year, the moms bust their butts for this auction. Next year, we’ll let Dad do the work.” It was the second time she had referred to Jason as Spencer’s dad. I didn’t correct her.

There was no reason to. When Jason and I, to my surprise, started to become serious the summer we met, I could tell how hard he tried to include Spencer. He taught him how to duck-dive waves at Atlantic Beach, played tennis with him at the courts in Amagansett, and climbed to the top of the lighthouse at the end of Montauk, a summer adventure intended for onetime tourists, but which Spencer never tired of. When autumn arrived, Jason asked us to move with him to the city. God, how I wanted to say yes. I was only twenty-four years old, and had only lived in two places: my parents’ house and a house in Pennsylvania I would have never gone back to, even if the city hadn’t torn it down. I had never really had a relationship with a man who had met me as an adult. I dated a couple of guys on and off who I knew from childhood, but nothing that would have ever led to marriage. The last thing I wanted was to be another generation of East Enders, barely scraping by in life, especially when I wasn’t in love. And Jason wasn’t just a good man who loved me.

He was educated, intellectual, and refined. He had a good job, an apartment in Manhattan, and apparently enough money left over for a Hamptons rental in the summer. He wanted to take care of me. I could finally move out of my mother’s house. I could work year-round in the city instead of having to work my ass off every day all summer trying to squirrel away enough cash for us to make it through the off-season. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t the main character in a fairy tale, ready to be saved by Prince Charming. I was a mother to a six-year-old who didn’t speak until he was three. Whom the doctors said might be autistic, merely because of his silence and a tendency to avoid eye contact. Who required supplementary tutoring during kindergarten to “prepare” him for what I wasn’t supposed to call the “normal” classroom, rather than the “special” one his kindergarten teacher was suggesting.

He was now about to start first grade at a school where he had friends, in the only stable home he had ever known. I couldn’t uproot him into the city for a man I’d known for three months. When I told Jason I couldn’t move, I was prepared to say good-bye, both to him and to our whirlwind romance. I tried to tell myself that other girls my age would have had a summer fling by now. Again, Jason surprised me. He rode the train out from the city every other weekend, staying in the cheapest room at Gurney’s, with a view of the parking lot. He helped Spencer with his homework. He even managed to endear himself to my mother, who doesn’t like anyone. In December, I accepted his invitation to bring Spencer into the city to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. We went iceskating.

It felt like a movie. For the first time since Spencer and I came home to live with my parents, my son spent the night under a different roof. Jason showed up unexpectedly the weekend before Memorial Day. The season would officially kick off in a week. I was already booked for twenty-seven parties. I was in the kitchen making hundreds of bacon-wrapped dates that I could freeze for future use when I heard the doorbell. He dropped to one knee on my mother’s front porch, opened the ring box, and asked me to marry him. I screamed so loudly that a passing bicyclist almost swerved into traffic. He had every detail planned out. We’d move into his rental for the summer.

I’d hire extra helpers to work the catering jobs I had already booked, and would stop accepting others. We’d return with him to the city in the fall. He’d ask friends to pull strings to get Spencer into a good school. He wanted to get married at Gurney’s this summer, if it wasn’t too soon. Last October, he’d put down a deposit to hold a date in July. “You’re insane,” I told him. “I know what that place costs. You paid a fortune, all on a bet.” “I don’t bet. When you’re an economist, it’s called researching and playing the market.

” “When you’re a normal human, it’s called being a dork.” “If it helps, they gave me a discount when I told them what it was for. They love you there. Almost as much as I love you. Marry me, Angela.” I asked him why it was such a rush. “Because I don’t want to see you every ten days. I want you with me every night.” He wrapped me in his arms and kissed my hair. “Besides, I don’t want some other summer guy laying his eyes on you at a friend’s party and stealing you away from me.

” “And Spencer?” “I want him to have a father. I want to be his father. Jason, Angela, and Spencer Powell. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” At that point, Spencer had my last name—Mullen. There had never been any consideration of another option. Now that Jason was talking about marriage, I saw the benefits of becoming Angela and Spencer Powell, in a big, crowded city. He would still see his grandparents. He had adjusted to kindergarten and then to first grade. He’d be able to transition to a new school. The benefits would be worth it.

I still remember Jason telling me how much his parents would have loved me the night after I said yes. We got married at Gurney’s on the date Jason had held, but at my request, there was no ceremony, just a dinner party for twelve. No puffy gown, no veil, no announcement in the Sunday Styles section. A nondenominational minister I found on the Internet showed up for cocktails to make it official. Jason’s lawyer and best friend, Colin, filed the paperwork to change Spencer’s name the following Monday. Legal adoption would take longer, but Spencer and I were officially Powells. Two years later, over a table at Eleven Madison Park, I asked Jason if Colin was still working on making it official. His face immediately fell, as if I’d interrupted dinner to ask him to take out the garbage. “Is this really what you want to talk about on our anniversary?” “Of course not. It’s just the date—it’s a reminder.

” I wasn’t a lawyer, but it didn’t seem possible it could take this long. There was no other father in the picture. “Did Colin tell you what the holdup was? I can get police reports if he needs them. I’m sure Detective Hendricks could explain—” Jason rested his fork on the plate next to his half-eaten duck breast and held up a hand. “Please,” he whispered, looking around as if anyone had been listening. “You’re always the one saying you don’t like thinking about that. That the past doesn’t matter. So can we please not talk about it on our anniversary?” “Fine.” It was a reasonable request. He was right.

I’d seen a counselor a few times when I first came home, but nothing that anyone would call real therapy. It was almost like I started life over again at the age of nineteen. I didn’t need counseling. The only thing I ever needed was for people to understand that I was fine. I am fine. The couple of times Jason suggested that I “talk to someone,” I shut down the possibility, and not gently. For me to raise the subject in passing over the dinner table was unfair. But I couldn’t ignore my suspicion that something had changed. What sounded like a pile of annoying paperwork a couple of years ago felt like an actual hurdle now, a line Jason no longer wanted to cross. Maybe it had seemed easier to imagine being a permanent father to Spencer two years ago, when we both assumed we’d have another child, a little brother or sister for our son, together.

I got pregnant the second month after our marriage. Two months after that, I wasn’t. I had never seen Jason cry before. That night in bed, we said we’d try again. I was still so young. It only took four months to get another plus sign on the stick. Then after two months: gone. Two miscarriages in a year. The third time lasted almost to the first trimester mark. I was starting to look forward to sharing the news.

But then we lost him . or maybe her. The doctors remained optimistic, telling me that my chances for a successful pregnancy were still over 50 percent. But I felt like I had already flipped that coin too many times, and it was going to keep coming up on the wrong side. I, of all people, needed predictability. I needed to know what was going to happen, and because I knew that about myself, I really only had one choice—to give up. I asked for the insertion of an IUD so I could have control over my body again. Jason did his best not to seem disappointed. He said that no matter what happened, we still had Spencer, and he was enough. But I could tell that he was trying to convince himself more than anything.

And I noticed that I was the one holding him. I was the one doing the consoling. Because we both knew that in some ways, the loss was more his than mine, because Spencer would always be more mine than his. Jason didn’t have a child of his own. And now Spencer still wasn’t adopted. “I thought maybe we’d gotten an update,” I said softly. He reached across the table and held my hand. When he looked into my eyes, he was no longer frustrated. “I love our son. And that’s who he is now—our son.

You know that, right?” “Of course.” I smiled. “It’s been two years since you locked this down.” “Best decision I ever made.” “Just figured we’d have locked down Spencer legally by now, too.” He gave my hand a squeeze. “Time flies when you’re happy. I’ll call Colin tomorrow. I promise.” He kept his promise.

When Colin sat me down and explained the process, he said it would be easy. We simply needed to notify Spencer’s biological father and get his permission to terminate his parental rights. “Or,” he explained, “if he never had any real ties to Spencer, we can argue abandonment and potentially skip the notification if you think it’s going to be a problem.” I tried to keep my voice completely neutral. “He’s dead.” “Oh, even better.” He immediately offered an awkward apology, and I assured him it was fine. “Condolences, I guess? Anyway, all we need in that case is a copy of the death certificate.” “But the father’s not listed on the birth certificate.” I didn’t explain that he was already dead and that Spencer was already two years old by the time that birth certificate was issued, listing me as his only parent.

“Huh, okay.” I could tell that Colin was waiting for a more detailed explanation, but I didn’t offer one. “Well, that’ll be a little more complicated. The judge might ask if you know who the father is, in which case we could offer up the death certificate. They need to make sure there’s not some guy out there getting his kid taken away. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem.” I nodded, knowing that Spencer was never going to have a legal father. When Jason got home that night, I told him everything I had learned about the adoption procedure. That was the last time we talked about it. The paperwork isn’t important.

Spencer knows who his parents are. We have Jason’s name. As far as anyone is concerned, Jason is Spencer’s father, and that’s all that matters, right?

.

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