“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.