Authors: D.J. Palmer
All of the endorphins Nina had built up during her strenuous barre workout with Susanna and Ginny vanished in a jiffy as soon as she set foot inside her new home. Maggie, who must have heard Nina pull into the driveway, bellowed for her mother to come upstairs. Simon was blocking the stairs like police caution tape, a silent warning that she wouldn't like what she'd find up there.
“What is going on?” Nina asked, speaking loudly to be heard over Maggie's urgent pleas.
Connor groaned and executed a textbook eye roll. “That girl's got more drama than an acting school,” he said, tossing his dirty duffel bag to the floor.
“That,” Nina said, pointing at the foul-smelling object, “needs to be emptied out. Dirty things in the hamper; cleats on the back porch.” Nina redirected her finger at Connor. “And you stay out of it. Get started on your homework before dinner.”
Connor skulked away, muttering something obviously unpleasant about his little sister.
“What is going on?” Nina asked again. She unconsciously adopted a defensive posture, arms folded across her chest as if to shield herself from the coming unpleasantness. She was still in her Lululemon workout ensemble, a carryover from the years when she'd felt secure enough financially to afford the luxury. If it weren't for Ginny and
her seemingly unending supply of guest passes, Nina would have had to give up her barre workouts long ago. She was well aware Simon had money, more than a teacher should haveâfamily money, he had explained rather vaguely, giving her the impression his deceased wife (will? life insurance?) factored into that equation. His reluctance to share any details kept her from prying.
Nina maintained her own checking account with an ever-dwindling balance. She had valid concerns about tying her finances to another person after Glen had left her and the kids nearly destitute to fund a different life she knew nothing about. Even so, Simon had been generous with his money, even putting Nina on his checking account in case something ever happened to him, or so he had said. But Nina wasn't going to ask him to pay for her workouts, not if she could help it.
As Simon explained the tiff with Maggie, Nina took a sharp inhale and held her breath. She could see why her daughter had reacted so strongly.
“I just wanted you to remind her to shut it off, not demand it,” Nina said.
But the hard look Simon returned suggested a different narrative.
“No, you were very clear with me that the TV
be shut off at six. Those were your instructions exactly.”
But were they?
Nina scratched at the recesses of her mind, trying to locate the precise words she'd spoken, but what had seemed so clear moments ago was now as murky as the lake that had seemingly swallowed Glen. Had she issued Simon a mandate? She understood the power dynamics at play, and it would have been unfair of her to put Simon in such a position. Of course Maggie would have battled back, if for no other reason than to make the point that Simon had no authority over her.
“I don't believe that's what I told you,” Nina said. “And if I did, you should know you have to be gentle with her. She's very fragile right now.”
“Which is why I specifically asked if you were sure that's what you
wanted me to do,” Simon said. “I know how young people think, Nina,” he reminded her.
Again, Nina thought back to the conversation she'd had with Simon while rushing out the door. Ginny, waiting in the driveway, had given a second warning honk that they'd soon be late for the afternoon exercise class. Meanwhile, the house was still a mess, and Nina couldn't find a tank top to wear. It was entirely conceivable that in the rush and chaos she'd issued Simon a mandate that had set him up to fail.
From the start of their relationship Simon had been nothing but generous, empathetic, and almost superhumanly in tune with her feelings and needs. Most important, she loved the way he loved her. It was like that first dinner he had cooked for her (eggplant rollatine), the first present he'd bought (an opal necklace, a perfect choice), the TV shows and movies he'd wanted to watch that she did, too, the music he listened toâall of it perfectly aligned with her tastes and desires, as if the universe itself were sending signals to let her know she'd made the right choice. So if there was fault to pass around here, Nina considered it quite possible that it rested squarely on her shoulders.
In fact, in their brief history together there had been no fights, no misunderstandings, not even any minor tiffs for her to reference. The toilet seat was never left up. His clothes were never scattered aboutâor worse, dropped on the floor four inches from the hamper. He kept his side of the bathroom cleaner than Nina's, as was his nature, and anytime he borrowed her car, it always came back with a full tank of gas.
Their first evening alone together, before they were a couple, had been at a restaurant Simon had picked out, the Blue Nile. It was new to Seabury but came highly praised by
a weekly periodical covering arts and culture in New Hampshire. Nina hadn't wanted to think of it as a date, because the word carried connotations she wasn't ready to embrace. She had told Simon to meet her there, partly because it felt less datelike to arrive separately.
Strolling into the restaurant, Nina felt guilty for wearing an outfit
she'd taken pains to select. To quiet her conscience, she'd reminded herself of Glen's many betrayals. It was hard enough that he'd gone missing, but when his secrets surfaced (the waitressÂ â¦ the missing money) and his body didn't, it made things so much worse. So for that reason, Nina's petty revenge felt strangely sweet. The fitted lace bodice with semi-sheer sleeves paired with a pencil skirt, was both feminine and figure-flattering. She wore lipstick and mascara, something she saved for special occasions, but she had wanted to make an impression. Judging by how Simon couldn't stop looking at her, Nina felt it was mission accomplished.
But it wasn't a date. Her husband had disappeared only three months agoâtwelve short weeks, and here she was, out with a man.
Simon had greeted Nina in the restaurant's sleek foyer. She felt something stir inside when his lips brushed against her cheek. He looked dashing in his tweed blazer, white oxford, and dark slacks, and Nina began to rethink her stance. It wasn't as if she had a marriage to mourn. As it turned out, she'd had no marriage at all. If Nina denied herself, it was only to adhere to some unspoken social norm. And it wasn't as if she had gone looking for Simon. He just happened. It was organic. In a weird way, it felt almost predestined.
They exchanged pleasantriesâ“Hello,” “You look nice”âas he helped Nina with her coat. He thanked the hostess and before he took his seat, Simon pulled out a chair for Nina. She was glad to see chivalry wasn't dead. In fact, Nina found herself fluttering a little at being treated like a lady, though she kept those feelings to herself.
The first order of business was the wine. Simon barely glanced at the menu before he suggested a bottle of Thierry Puzelat, a red she had never tasted before.
“It's organic, unfiltered, and bottled without any added sulfites,” Simon said.
Nina was impressed. “Sounds perfect.”
And it was. Nina always shopped organic when she could. She was
as careful about what she put into her children's bodies as what went into her own.
Simon smiled appreciatively. “Had a good hunch about what you might like.”
“I'd say your hunch is very well informed.”
Simon chuckled in response.
The wine came while they were perusing the menu. Simon made sure Nina got the first sip, and it was in fact delicious. The waiter poured two glasses before taking their order. Nina asked for the Scottish organic salmon with savoy cabbage and truffle vinaigrette. Simon ordered steak frites with an arugula salad.
“Tell me how you're doing with everything.” Simon leaned in. Nina answered as best she could, sharing her worries, fears, doubts, and concerns for a future clouded by the smoldering wreckage of her past.
Simon had impressed Nina. He was so thoughtful and engaged, asking all the right questions; interested in her, but in a relaxed way. It didn't feel like an inquisition or a romantic tryst, but more like two friends getting to know each other better, chatting with ease. It felt nice.
“Kids are hanging in there,” Nina said, answering one of Simon's follow-up questions. “They're trying to resume their lives, and I'm looking for therapists to help guide them, but it's hard, as you can imagine.”
The evening flowed as easily as the wine went down. It wasn't until Nina got home, with only a friendly embrace and no kiss goodnight from Simon, that she realized how much she had dominated the conversation. They'd barely spoken of Simon's life, his hardships. It wasn't a big secret that Simon's wife had committed suicide some five years before. Nina didn't know how to broach the subject, and thought it best if he were the one to bring it up. But he never did. Maybe he didn't want to talk about it. Maybe the wound was still too fresh. Or maybe Nina was too consumed with her own misfortunes to discuss those of another.
She thought about this for much of the next day, wondering how to
apologize for not encouraging Simon to speak about himself, when he showed up unexpectedly at the house with a toolbox in his hand.
Nina's breath caught, surprised at how good it felt to see him again.
“I was in the neighborhood and remembered you had a loose and leaky faucet. I keep a toolbox in my car, and had the crazy idea to come by and fix it.” He swung his toolbox in the direction of the kitchen. Nina eyed him dubiously. She recalled the day Simon had brought over her favorite meal and she'd invited him in for dinner. He had fiddled with the faucet that evening, so his story was believable. But she was also aware of the general vicinity in which Simon lived, meaning the only thing that might have led him to this part of town was looking squarely into his sweet baby-brown eyes.
Nina was anxious about inviting Simon inside, as the children were at home and his presence again would obviously raise questions. But she found herself stepping aside, then following Simon to the kitchen. There he opened his toolbox and got right to work.
“Shouldn't take but a minute,” he announced, using a flashlight to examine the faucet carefully. The kids did not come to inspect the visitor, but Daisy did, and her olfactory memory earned Simon a lick on the arm.
While Simon toiled, half hidden underneath the cabinet, Nina worked in an apology for the other evening.
“We didn't talk about you hardly at all,” she said, making no allusions to them both sharing a tragic past. “I felt bad about it when I got home.”
Simon eased himself out from under the sink and met Nina's worried gaze.
“I had a wonderful evening,” he said. “You don't owe me an apology for anything.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the faucet.
As if on cue, Maggie came into the kitchen, surprised to see Simon there.
“Hey there,” Simon said, pulling himself out from under, his expression becoming animated. To Nina's delight, he anticipated Maggie's
question. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd fix the faucet. I noticed it was loose last time I was here. How are you?”
“Good,” Maggie answered.
“Everything going well at school? I know getting back must be hard.”
“It's okay,” Maggie said in a soft voice.
“Well, it's almost summer,” Simon said brightly. “I don't know who's more excited for the breakâthe kids or the teachers.”
Maggie returned a polite laugh. She had missed almost three weeks of schoolâfirst for the search, later for the grievingâwhile managing to keep up with her studies from home. At first, to help her kids stay on track, Nina had kept the most damaging information from them. All they knew was that their dad was missing. She said nothing of their father's many misdeeds, nor did they have an inkling that their mom was beginning to develop feelings for another man.
Maggie didn't stay long. Adults had nothing to offer her, and if she did have questions about Simon's motives for fixing the sink or her mother's feelings, she'd never shared.
But she was sharing now.
Long after Nina and Simon had become a coupleâafter more dinners out, then movie dates; after long talks on the phone (something Nina hadn't done since she and Glen had begun dating); after a moonlit beach walk and dance in the sand with only the wind and waves for music; after their first kiss on the lakeshore by Simon's house and the first time they made love; after Simon professed his love for Nina (words he admitted to being too scared to say to anybody since his wife's suicide); after the rocket-ship trajectory of new romanceâMaggie had found her voice, and had no trouble speaking her mind.
Nina trudged upstairs, anticipating a rehashing of her daughter's well-worn complaints:
He's not my real father. How could you just replace Dad? Why don't I have any say? How come I can't move to Nebraska and live with Nonni and Papa?
The real issue, of course, was Glen.
It took time and a lot of soul-searching before Nina had decided to
level with her kids about what their father had done. She didn't expect them to comprehend the situation the way an adult would, but she had hoped it would make it easier for them to accept what she wanted out of life now: Simon, love, a second chance at happiness.
While Nina wasn't completely forthcoming, she'd given them the essential shape of the truth. She avoided using the word “affair,” and downplayed certain details of their financial woes for the benefit of young psyches in no need of further scarring. The most important message Nina tried to conveyâand thought she'd done a good job of it, tooâwas that their father was gone, never to come back. In nearly the same breath, she had reassured them that she would always be there for them, but she wanted, needed, and deserved to move on with her lifeâa move that, to Maggie's chagrin, involved Simon. This recent flare-up would in no way deter Nina's resolve to make everyone happy, including herself.