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Authors: D.J. Palmer

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BOOK: The New Husband
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CHAPTER 15

Monday's hot lunch was a chicken patty sandwich, buttered carrots cut into coin-size shapes, and an apple. Ben Odell, my lunch buddy and technically my only friend, heaped on the mayo and ate his sandwich while flipping through the pages of the calculus textbook he was reading for fun.

The cafeteria was bustling with the usual chaos and noise, but it wasn't distracting enough to keep my attention from wandering over to Laura and Justin's table, where the happy couple sat laughing and talking with a group of my former friends. I tried to imagine the pain I felt in my heart was indigestion from the cheese quesadilla Mom had made for my lunch, but I knew better. I didn't miss them exactly, because I knew what they were all about, but rejection, even from people who totally stink, can still hurt.

There were plenty of other things for me to obsess over—my Spanish test for one, and there was an English paper I had to write on
The Pearl,
which had turned out to be a pretty good book. Instead, I focused on Simon, who made Justin and Laura seem like the nicest people on the planet.

“It just doesn't make sense,” I said to Ben. “Why on earth would Simon skip his big annual field trip to Strawbery Banke to take us all to Niagara Falls? And why leave Connor out of it? We could travel later, after football's over. Those falls aren't going anywhere.”

I had thought about it for days, and couldn't come up with a single reason, which led me to one conclusion: he had lied. There was no trip. Never had been one. I don't know why he would have made it all up, but I'm sure he had a reason. What I didn't have was proof, and I told this to Ben, who shared my belief and concern.

It was strange to admit, but I felt like I'd known Ben forever. A few weeks ago, we'd hardly said hello passing each other in the hall. Now we looked for each other between classes. He was different from the other kids. He loved school, and math especially, and he said odd things at odd times. The old me would have rolled my eyes at him, called him a geek or whatever, but the new me found freedom in being friends with him.

I didn't have to be a certain way with Ben, or say certain things, or dress like this person or that person. He didn't care how I looked or even if I cried in front of him, which I did when I saw all my FFs (former friends) at our Old Home Day carnival and they walked right past me—even worse, they looked right through me. It made me sad and I got all blubbery and yeah, that's a true story. But Ben didn't care, because he liked me for who I was, simple as that. You don't realize how much you need a friend like Ben Odell until you've got one in your life. I could say that now.

So, when I told him I thought Simon was being a sneak and a liar for reasons unknown, he took my side right away. He chewed hard on a bite of his sandwich, and it seemed he was chewing on some thought as well.

“Why don't you find out?” he said.

“Okay, genius, how do you want me to do that? Ask him?”

“No, because he would lie about it,” Ben said, straight-faced.

“Yeah, I know. I was being sarcastic.”

“Oh,” said Ben. “You didn't
sound
sarcastic.”

“You don't have to sound sarcastic to be sarcastic—” I was going to argue my point, but I stopped myself. With Ben, I had learned to tell when an argument was going to go in circles.

“Forget it,” I said. “What are you thinking?”

“I'm thinking you should call,” Ben said.

“Call who?”

“The hotel, silly.” He shoveled a sporkful of carrots into his mouth.

“Like, I should just
call
them? What would I say?”

Ben's look told me it was a dumb question.

“Tell them you're Mrs. Fitch, or the future Mrs. Fitch—you know, you're your mom—and that you want to see about redoing the reservation. Then find out if he ever actually made one.”

“Gross. So now they're married?”

“Well, duh,” Ben said. He was one of those kids who sounded strange when he was acting his age. “Aren't they basically married already?”

“Yeah, I suppose,” I said dejectedly.

“He told you where you were staying, right?”

He put “staying” in air quotes.

I thought back to that moment when Mom had announced her new job, and remembered Simon saying it was the Sheraton with views of the waterfall—which, by the way, I really wanted to see.

Now, I'd never forged my mom's signature on a permission slip, or a report card, or done anything even remotely questionable like that, so pretending to be her kind of freaked me out. But, I thought, who would know? It's just some random person who works at the front desk. They won't care. So I searched for the number on my phone, and it was easy to find. Sheraton, Niagara Falls.

Ben and I left the cafeteria, telling the teacher on lunch duty that we were headed to the library. If it had been Justin and Laura asking to leave before the period ended, we'd have been sent back to our seats, no question about it. But Ben could go anywhere and do anything because everybody, all the teachers, trusted him.

The library wasn't a good place to have a phone conversation, so instead we found a quiet nook near the gym that was far enough away from the cafeteria to talk without shouting.

I had to listen to a bunch of annoying promotions for the Sheraton until eventually a woman thanked me for calling and asked if she could help with a reservation. I told her my name, described the situation, and tried to make it seem like we were so super excited the trip was back on. I gave it my absolute best acting job, pretending to be my mom. (P.S. my last official part in a play was as the apple tree in the third-grade production of
Johnny Appleseed.
) I felt I'd really sold it, and even lowered my voice to make myself sound all grown-up.

“Do you have a reservation number?” the woman asked.

I wasn't prepared for that one and I stumbled to find my words.

“Um … uh, no,” I said. “I have a name.”

I wanted to slap my forehead—dummy!—but to my relief, that seemed to be a perfectly fine response.

“Sure,” the lady said. I gave her my name, Nina Garrity, and the date of our trip. I heard typing and then she apologized because she couldn't find our reservation. I shook my head at Ben, who mouthed the word “Simon.”

“Um, maybe it's under my … my—” I stumbled again because I didn't know what to call him. “My husband's name,” I eventually blurted out, giving the name Simon Fitch, while keeping myself from gagging.

There was more clacking as the lady did more typing.

“No, I'm sorry,” she said. “I don't have a reservation under that name, either.”

There was another Sheraton on the Canadian side of the falls, she told me, but there was no reservation at that location. The lady told me that as long as the reservation was for a date in the future, she could look it up, even if it had been canceled. I ended the call with a big smile on my face.

“Now we have proof Simon was lying,” I said.

Ben didn't look nearly as pleased. “That's great,” he said. “So what are you going to do about it?”

I got quiet because, well, what was I going to do? It's not like I could
say I happened to have stumbled on this information. Then I had another thought and decided to change topics.

“Why are you helping me so much, Ben?” I asked.

“Because you're my friend.” He didn't hesitate to answer.

“Yeah, but you're like,
really
helping. All I ever do is talk about me—my stupid problems. Doesn't that annoy you?”

“I like a challenge. Your problems are like calculus in people form.”

“Great,” I groaned. “No wonder I can't understand myself.”

“Don't take this the wrong way, but your issues are a lot more interesting than mine.”

“Really? What are yours?”

Ben gave a shrug. “Grades. Test scores. That's how I'm measured at home. That's how people see me—the smart kid. If I ever got a C, I think my parents might disown me.”

“Well, I don't see you like that.”

“You don't see me as an Aspie either, you just see me as me. Maybe that's one reason I'm happy to help. Just accept it and let's move on, okay? Now, what are you going to do?”

“Aspie,” I knew, was shorthand for “Asperger syndrome,” and it was the first time Ben had mentioned his label. I didn't know how to respond, but Ben's expression told me I didn't have to.

“I'm going to tell my mom,” I said, after giving it some thought. “And let her figure it out.”

The rest of the day passed in a blur. I took the bus home, which felt weird, because I was so used to playing sports, or doing something, after school. Simon wasn't there when I arrived, but eventually he showed up. I hung out in my room with the door closed, Daisy with me. I tried to do my homework, but really all I did was read the same passage in my history book over and over again. I felt like a prisoner, especially with Mom at the grocery store and Connor at football practice, but Simon knew enough not to come check up on me. I even heard him walking around upstairs, but he got it—a closed door meant no company.

My mom finally showed up with Connor. He had his license and would have driven himself to and from football practice if we could have afforded a second car. I came running downstairs (a bit awkwardly, thanks to the boot I still wore) as soon as I heard the front door open. Daisy had gone ahead at a faster pace. Connor, smelling like he had just crawled out of a dirty laundry hamper, was carrying two grocery bags and told me to get the rest in the car. I ignored him (I'm good at that) and instead followed Mom into the kitchen, where I confronted her with the kind of excitement I typically reserved for a straight-A report card.

“Say that again.” Mom looked utterly confused.

I repeated my breathless explanation about the nonexistent hotel reservation, including the motive behind it.

“You think he made up a trip to make me feel bad about my new job? Why on earth would he do that? And why were you even looking into this?” She said it as if I was wrong to go snooping into Simon's personal business, but I could almost see the gears in Mom's head churning to translate what I told her—Strawbery Banke, weird timing, no reservation. I thought:
We've got you now—liar, liar, pants on fire!

But then Mom did something I didn't expect. She left and didn't come back for a good long while. I waited in the kitchen, because I didn't know what else I was supposed to do. When she returned, she was with Simon. Mom looked annoyed, but not angry.

“Will you please explain for the benefit of my exuberantly curious daughter why there might not have been a reservation at the Sheraton for the family trip that we're rescheduling for a later date?”

Simon did not look like a man about to get caught in a lie. Instead he looked like a teacher trying to stay patient with a disrespectful student.

“As I told your mother, I didn't book the trip through the hotel.” Simon made it clear I was testing his patience. “I made it through a travel website, so they had the reservation, not the Sheraton. When I canceled, the reservation went away.” Then he crouched down so I
could see his face clearly. It wasn't looking happy. “Do you want to see the receipt, Maggie?”

Connor came into the kitchen, sensed the tension, and asked what was going on. We ignored him.

“Look, I was devastated to miss that field trip,” Simon said. “But I felt it was more important to try to … you know, do something to bring us a little bit closer. And that deal was too good to pass up. Hang on, Maggie. There's something I want to show you.”

With that, Simon left the room, leaving me to face Mom and her disapproving eyes.

“You've got to try to make it easier for us, Mags,” Mom said. “We all need to get along, and Simon does a lot for us that you don't seem to appreciate.”

I couldn't look my mom in the eyes, so instead I watched her fiddle with her opal necklace, twirling the dazzling pendant in her fingers. I recognized that necklace, of course: it was the one Simon had bought for Mom's last birthday. My mom loved opals, but the present had bothered me—the last gift my dad had bought Mom had also been an opal necklace.

“You really called the Sheraton?” Connor said, shaking his head in disbelief.

I felt burning shame rush into my cheeks, even though in my bones I knew Simon wasn't being truthful.

Eventually Simon returned to the kitchen, showing up in the middle of Mom's big speech about everyone trying harder, and presented me with a receipt he'd printed off a travel website.

“You can take it,” he said. “It's authentic.”

But Mom took it first.

“No, she can't have it, because I'm not encouraging any more of this behavior. It's utterly ridiculous.”

“Honestly, Maggie,” Simon said. “I don't know why you're so suspicious of me. But eventually, and this is a promise, I'm going to win you over, one way or another.”

But the way he said it, darkly, with no hint of joy in his voice or eyes, made his big promise sound more like a threat. That's when an idea came to me, a burst of inspiration—a stroke of genius, I think is the expression. I needed Mom to see the real Simon, the angry Simon, the dark Simon who'd snatched the TV remote from my hand, the one who had lied about our trip and then lied again. To do that, I had to make him angry,
really
angry, and I knew just how to do it.

 

CHAPTER 16

It was Saturday night, four days to go before Nina started her new job. She was headed out to dinner with Ginny and Susanna to celebrate, wearing a cute black top she seldom wore and her favorite pair of jeans, which fit her curves much better since moving stress had jettisoned some unwanted pounds. Her makeup was applied in a way that smoothed out the years without seeming bent on recapturing her youth.

She was almost ready to leave when she heard an unmistakable sound emanating from behind the shuttered door to the master bathroom. Moments before, Simon had rushed upstairs and vanished within without uttering a word. Then came the retching, the splash, next a flush, followed by more retching.

Nina went to the door and gave a gentle knock, worry knitting creases in her brow.

“Babe?” she called out.

“Hang on.” Simon's strangled voice had the raspy, breathless sound of extreme fatigue. Nina grimaced at a cringe-worthy heave and splash. Eventually, Simon emerged, his complexion the color of glue, sweat beading on his forehead, standing shakily on his feet.

“Honey, what's the matter?”

“Dunno,” he said wearily. “Came on like a freight train.”

Staggering over to the bed, Simon fell with a thump onto the mattress.

“I hope this is gone by Monday,” he groaned. “We're about to start the colonial settlements segment.”

Kneeling beside Simon, Nina touched his forehead with the back of her hand. His skin was clammy.

“Oh honey,” she said, scraping the side of her hand against the stubble of his cheek as she brushed back his hair. “Food poisoning?”

Nina noted how she was feeling. She had sampled a few spoonfuls of the mac and cheese Simon prepared for Maggie's dinner, but her stomach felt fine, thank goodness.

“I don't think so,” said Simon, before letting out a little groan. “I really haven't eaten much. Feels more like a fast-moving bug.”

A bug invited in a new alarm, and Nina bristled at the thought she could still catch something. Maggie, too, might have gotten it, though Nina had less concern for Connor, who'd been at his friend Luke's house most of the day.

Simon rolled over, exposing his back to Nina. She tried to caress him, but he shirked away. No surprise there. Glen never wanted to be touched whenever he took ill. Man-flu, she called it, a debilitating ailment that women somehow quickly overcame to resume their duties of wife, mother, cook, driver, coach, mediator, shopper, and so much more, despite suffering the exact same symptoms. But tonight, Nina made no jokes, and gave Simon her full attention.

“I'm so sorry. Do you need the bucket?”

“The bucket” was family shorthand for a wastebasket to puke in, and now Simon was part of that shorthand.

People get sick,
Nina told herself, sensing her evening plans were now in jeopardy.
This is what sharing your life with someone is all about. You get the good times and the bad. You share the laughs, the hugs, and the bucket.

“I think I'm all right for now,” said Simon, rolling over onto his back.
A great rush of sympathy welled inside Nina as she peered into those beautiful brown eyes of his. The way he looked up at her, helpless, with searing gratitude, thankful to the core for her care, opened Nina's heart another crack, making it possible to love Simon a bit more in this moment than she had the moment before.

“What can I do to help?”

Nina stole a glance at the time on her phone, realizing that if she did not leave soon, she would be late to meet her friends at Cucina Toscana, a new Italian place everyone in town had been raving about. Simon groaned in agony.

“Nothing, you should go—”

Nina sensed the “but” coming.

“But I'm worried, if I get sicker—you know, I don't want to be a burden to Maggie,” he said.

Nina got it right away. She felt all sorts of guilt for leaving her daughter home alone with Simon, and now illness added more complications to the already tricky dynamics.

Simon's point was a good one. What if he needed Maggie's help with something? What if he got really sick? What if Maggie got what Simon had? How could she eat, drink, and laugh with her friends with all that worry knocking about? Would she have left Glen alone in a similar state? Maybe, yes—probably, in fact. But Glen was Maggie's father. It was different.

“I should stay,” said Nina, thinking it through. “It feels strange for you to be sick, alone with Maggie, and—”

Nina did not finish her sentence because, with the speed of a sprinter responding to a starting gun, Simon bolted from the bed and dashed into the bathroom, where more retching and splashing took place. He emerged minutes later looking utterly bloodless, wobbly as a top about to tumble. Nina gently led him back to bed, guiding him with a hand on his wrist, helping him onto the mattress, where he collapsed with a groan.

“That's it. I'm canceling,” she said.

“No, don't,” Simon protested without much conviction. Nina guessed he probably did not want to be home alone with Maggie, just as Maggie didn't want to be alone with him.

There was some back-and-forth debating, but in the end Nina got her phone and made the call, disappointing her friends, who had not seen her since their last workout together.

“We'll reschedule,” Nina said.

“I've heard that before,” Ginny said.

Nina had forgotten that it was the second time she had canceled plans with them recently. The other occasion was last week, when Simon's car had broken down on the highway as he was coming home from grocery shopping. She and her girls were going to meet up for a movie night, maybe dinner after, but Simon needed rescuing twenty minutes in the opposite direction, with two hundred dollars' worth of groceries in a hot car.

“Lately, it seems like there's always something coming up with you,” Ginny said, sounding a bit sour. “Are you sure you're all right?”

Nina held her tongue. She knew Ginny was dredging up old concerns that Simon had some weird character defect because of how quickly he had moved in on her after Glen was out of the picture. But it takes two to tango and Nina didn't appreciate the insinuation that she was somehow being duped.

“I'm fine. Stop worrying,” she said. “I'll make it up to you. Dinner on me next time.”

“We don't want your money, love. We just want your companionship. Tell Simon to feel better soon.”

Ginny didn't sound overly sincere, but Nina thanked her friend for the good wishes nonetheless, and ended the call.

Yes, she had chosen Simon over her friends, Nina told herself, but these things happened. Cars broke down. Plans got canceled. Nina's parents, who had been married forty years, had taught her how it was the small sacrifices, made over time, repeated over and over again, that ultimately determined the health of a marriage. Knowing that Simon
would have gladly made those simple sacrifices for her somehow gave Nina confidence that he wouldn't soon be taking up with his version of Teresa.

Going forward, trusting men would never be completely easy for Nina, but thank goodness Simon at least made it possible for her to try.

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