Denial

In the elevator, Emily lets her backpack drop to the floor. The weight of a week’s worth of dirty clothes, camping gear, cooking utensils, gone.

In its place, a more familiar weight.

Her eyes glance along the wood of the walls and ceiling and come to rest on the lighted floor numbers above the door, each one illuminated for a moment, the briefest spark, a doused flame.

The door slides open and she drags her backpack behind her, leaving it in the entranceway as she steps into the apartment.

She looks around. Everything is the same, the same high ceilings, the same early-evening gold slanting in through the windows and puddling the floors, the same shades of cream and linen and surfaces darkly shiny and deeply plush. Marble floors in the foyer; an all-white living room whose sliding doors remain closed unless guests are expected; a den with cherry-stained, wood-paneled walls. Same.

She pauses at a table displaying several pictures in silver frames: one of the kids, Mara and Eric, as toddlers; a black-and-white of her and Aaron when they were first married; and one of the four of them on vacation last Christmas in Mexico. Emmy picks up the one of her and Aaron, examining it as if to lay bare a secret. What did it feel like to have such an innocent face?

“Em?” Aaron’s low voice carries down the stairs.

Emmy replaces the picture and turns. “Hi,” she calls up. “I didn’t think you’d be home!”

Aaron jogs down the stairs, arms open wide. He’s changed out of his work clothes into an old pair of gray sweatpants and a faded Middlebury T-shirt that used to make him look wiry and outdoorsy but now makes his shoulders seem narrow, his waist paunchy.

Emmy laughs. “I don’t think you want to come too near me. I need a shower in the worst way.”

“I don’t care,” Aaron says, leaning down to kiss her.

She moves her face to the side so that he kisses the corner of her mouth.

He steps back, nodding. “Okay, go take that shower, you weren’t kidding. I’ll pour you a glass of wine.” He turns toward the kitchen. “We didn’t know what time you’d be back—no one’s heard from you.”

Emmy, starting up the stairs, left hand on the smooth banister, stops.

Her phone. Forgotten. So consumed by Ted, by leaving him, and then with thoughts about returning—

“Mom?”

She looks up to see Mara at the top of the stairs and smiles. Seventeen and on the cusp of everything.

“Welcome home,” Mara says. She’s on her best behavior. “Did you guys have fun?”

Emmy reaches the top of the stairs. “Fun and then some.” Her voice sounds bright. So bright it makes her own ears ache.

“Oh my God, you stink.” Mara holds her nose and waves the air in front of her face. “Did you not shower at all?”

Emmy blows her a kiss. “Is your brother home?”

“He’s in his room.”

Emmy starts to walk toward his room and then changes her mind. “I’m going to jump in the shower. Then I want to hear about your week, okay?”

Mara nods, biting her lower lip, one hand on her hip, the other wrapped around her waist.

In the bathroom, Emmy turns on the shower. She strips off her clothes, leaving them in a heap on the floor, and stands under the water, eyes closed, hands cupped at her chest, open as if receiving a blessing. She takes palmfuls of shower gel and soaps her body, her breasts, remembering Ted, how he touched her, kissed her as though that’s all there was, kissing, they could do it for hours, she wants to do it for hours, God, what was happening to her? All she wants is for Teddy to fuck her silly, and meanwhile her perfect sister Meryl, perfect wife to Dan the Wall Street Man and mother to her three perfect young girls, their hair always brushed and pulled back and bowed, their perfect, always-tidy house in Chappaqua, the worst thing she can do is put on a nightgown for her general contractor to ogle. Or not. Emmy’s hands are working, on their way down, they are Ted’s hands and her breath is coming faster—

“Want company?” Aaron appears in the steamy bathroom, holding two glasses half full of red wine. He shuts the door behind him with his elbow.

“Oh God,” Emmy gasps, slipping, almost slamming her head against the shower door. She turns away. “I’ve got about ten layers of dirt to scour off. Believe me, you don’t want my company. I’ve never felt so filthy in my life.”

Aaron laughs and places one of the glasses near the sinks. “So how was it? Did your sisters survive? Are you all still speaking to each other?”

Emmy pours some shampoo into her palm. “I can’t really hear you too well—” She works the shampoo into her hair, her back still toward Aaron, her voice raised just a notch or two above normal. “How were the kids? How was your week?”

“Pretty uneventful.” Aaron leans against the sink he uses. His sink. “Although, actually, your daughter skipped her recital.”

“What?” Emmy wipes a space clear on the glass door and stares out at Aaron, her hair a whipped-cream pile of suds on her head. “What did you say?”

Aaron nods sadly. “I know. Believe me, I was shocked too.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” She steps under the stream of water and rinses her hair and then wipes her face as she leans toward the door to speak. “How’d her auditions go?”

“I’m not sure. She didn’t say.” Aaron sips his wine. “But your son is lobbying to play in the game next Saturday. Rather forcefully.”

“Is he ready? His shoulder?”

“He needs another MRI. Just to be sure.”

Emmy smooths conditioner into her hair. Her clean hair. “He probably won’t even get to play more than a few minutes. I’m sure it’s just a token thing.”

“Which is why it’s not worth the risk.” Aaron straightens. “I’ll let you finish up. I’m going to check on dinner.”

Emmy turns to watch Aaron’s figure retreat into the bedroom. His hair, in need of a cut, sticks out in gray-brown curls that bounce and jiggle with each step, innocent and childlike.

She lowers herself to her knees and sits back on her heels. The water pounds against her shoulders. She hugs her thighs into her breasts.

What have I done? she thinks. What am I doing?

In the taxi home, Emmy had rehearsed her speech. She pictured herself greeting the kids and Aaron, having dinner together, a pleasant evening. And then later, when she was alone with Aaron, she would tell him.

I want you to know the truth because I respect you and I love you and I love our kids.

She would be calm, forthright, open. Her voice would remain even; her gaze steady. It would be difficult, the hardest thing, perhaps, she had ever done. She would have to channel her professional persona as a lawyer. All that sympathetic objectivity, a hardening of her heart that would allow her to press forward. Because she does love Aaron, even now.

Even after Ted; even after this week, this one week.

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