Authors: Claire Lombardo
But it had never felt quite like
Both kids were sleeping through the night and Matt had just made partner and Violet had shed her final pounds of baby weight and everything had been going exceptionally, and if they got a babysitter and went out to dinner it should’ve been to bask rather than to save their marriage. Except now there was Jonah, and there wasn’t a restaurant in the Chicagoland area fancy enough to assuage the effects of his arrival. Matt had known about the boy nearly since they’d met, of course, but he was as troubled as she by the announcement of his return, even if he’d sanctioned Jonah’s move to Wendy’s house.
She’d donned a brave face on the blacktop at school that morning—explaining why a sitter would be picking up Wyatt—and told the other moms not that she needed an emotional-support dinner with her husband after ferrying her relinquished teenage child to the opulent home of her trainwreck sister, but instead that she and Matt were celebrating their
May the fifth, fourteen years ago, Logan Center for a lecture on the common man, which actually also happened to be the truth. She’d always insisted, somewhat cloyingly—and, again, with more ease, in better times—that they celebrate the day, even if just with champagne and cuddling once the kids were down. This year, overcompensating, she’d made a reservation at a breathtakingly expensive seafood place in Streeterville and, leaving her car parked in a garage not nearly as far as she would have liked from Wendy’s building, walked south to Matt’s office on Dearborn.
What were Jonah and Wendy doing now? She hoped not smoking weed or drinking Barolo. The boy had been so silent during their time together that afternoon. He’d given Hanna a hug goodbye and carried all of his stuff himself, dismissing Violet’s offers of help. He had decidedly
embraced her when she left Wendy’s. She hugged her jacket tighter against a nonexistent chill.
Matt’s office was one of the few places that made her miss her professional life, populated by a bunch of no-nonsense corporate types, people who rarely stopped to make small talk. She sidestepped Carol, his receptionist—winking, putting a finger to her lips, exaggeratedly indicating Matt’s office like she was going to perform some grand surprise—but she paused in his open doorway to watch him, hard at work, writing longhand, shoulders hunched up around his ears. That unbending concentration he had, that ability to power through even the most tedious of tasks. All for the sake of their life together, its steady, comfortable abundance. She’d been drawn to this drive in the first place, this willful blindness he had, all in the service of making their life work.
“Matty,” she said, and he startled, dropped his pen. “Hey, stranger.” This coquettishness was more for the benefit of Carol.
“What are you doing here, Viol? I thought you were taking—” He stopped.
“I made us dinner reservations,” she said pointedly.
? Sweetie, it’s Cinco de Mayo, the pub crawlers are going to be out in droves.”
She waited for it to dawn on him.
“Oh,” he said. “I— Happy anniversary.”
Behind her, she sensed Carol straighten subtly to attention. If a forgotten anniversary could elicit this level of intrigue, she couldn’t begin to imagine what state of transcendental bliss a lovechild adoption scandal would send her into.
anniversary,” he said defensively. “Just the day we met.”
“My husband, the romantic,” she said, but only because Carol was there, and not because her feelings weren’t hurt.
Matt was right about the pub-crawling, drunken Loyola undergraduates and distressed thirty-somethings with undoubtedly ill-gotten glow necklaces, but the restaurant they arrived at was painfully exclusive and out of the price range of the inebriated masses.
“How’d it go today?” he asked, somewhat stiffly, and she wilted a little, because she’d hoped—unreasonably—that they might be able to make it through dinner as they would’ve been able to a few months ago, with drowsy conversation about the kids, amusing tales about his colleagues, exchange of bullet points both had accrued about current events. Easy chatter, no-stakes chatter. Matt watched her. He’d seemed relieved, if a bit skeptical, when she shared that Wendy would be taking care of Jonah, that the discovery of her discarded child would not directly upset the landscape of their life.
She sipped desperately at her cocktail, something fruity and strong, the lip of the glass rimmed with fiery red powder. “Fine,” she said. “Successful hostage transfer.”
He raised his eyebrows at her, fairly: it was an off-color joke; she wasn’t sure where it had come from.
“He seemed calm. Wendy was—Wendy. He had the most meager amount of
Matty; it was so—like his entire life fit into a couple of bags. And when we left the Danforths’ house—Hanna was crying, but Jonah was just—resigned. Like he’d done it a thousand times before. Which I guess he
. It just struck me how little I know about him.”
“No kidding,” Matt said archly. His tone jarred her.
“I don’t mean that in like a
way,” she said. “I just mean that he’s had so many experiences that I can’t even— I don’t mean he’s
“I’m not necessarily saying he’s dangerous, Viol, but he’s—I mean, he’s a wild card. You know nothing about him.”
“Hanna had nothing but good things to say.”
“And yet weeks ago you discredited her as a flaky granola weirdo moving to Ecuador because the spirits moved her.”
but…” She cleared her throat, sipped her drink. “He’s coming over for dinner sometime soon when Wendy has plans.”
Matt froze, then closed his eyes and exhaled. “Violet.”
“She just sprang it on me—Wendy did, and I couldn’t…”
“She’s— You don’t understand how she—what it’s like when she—”
“What? Manipulates the hell out of you?”
“She’s taking him in, Matty. And I just felt
leaving him like that, like I was just dropping something at the dry cleaner’s.”
the solution,” he said, as though speaking to a small child. “You didn’t want him to get shoved back into the system. But it’s not fair to Eli and Wyatt to force a stranger into their lives in this way. Have you given any thought to that? It took Wyatt six months to adjust to a new
bowl; we can’t just expect him to accept out of nowhere that he’s got a new half brother. And what if things
work out for him? What if this
a good fit and he has to find an alternative? What kind of impact will that have on our sons, springing a new family member on them and then having him disappear?”
“Kids adjust to new siblings all the time. I was about Wyatt’s age when Liza was born.”
“This isn’t us having a new
Violet. How do you plan on explaining this to them?”
“Well, there may be some literature on—”
“On introducing your secret teenage child to your toddlers?” he said meanly. “Never mind the fact that it never occurred to you to
me if I’d be okay with him meeting them.”
“It’s not as though we have all this time for conversation lately,” she said, a cheap shot. “Matt, this just happened. She just did this. I’m sorry if you feel out of the loop, but I just— This got dumped in my lap and I’m trying to deal with it the best I can and I don’t have a chance to run every single thing by you before I do it.”
“Wendy didn’t just
it. You agreed to dinner.”
“She put me on the spot.”
“And you’re putting
on the spot. It’s not like you to make impulsive decisions like this.” He cupped his hands around his tumbler, staring into it. He shook his head once, quickly. “I barely recognize you lately.”
Instead of saying
she said—another sentence formed and uttered of its own accord: “There was always a chance of him reentering my life.”
“This isn’t about him reentering, Violet. That’s already happened. This is about you making responsible decisions that won’t completely bulldoze our family. You can’t just play the
card whenever you decide to do something—”
“We’re your family now, Violet. The boys have to come first.”
“Until your sister opens her mouth, and then suddenly it’s a free-for-all.”
“That’s not how this works.”
“Anything involving this kid, Violet. Nothing’s a one-off. Nothing can happen that doesn’t affect everything else. We have
and he becomes a part of our kids’ lives, to some degree, and of course it’s not just one dinner, Violet; he’s living with your sister; he’s meeting your parents; he— Are you really not visualizing the ripple effects? What it means that Wendy’s taken him in?” The worst part was that Matt looked worried; his voice was angry but his face was full of a frank apprehension—not about the situation itself, she realized, but about her role in it. About
“There aren’t any rules to follow here,” she said quietly.
Matt softened, surprised her by taking her hand across the table. “Are you okay, Violet? Should I be worried about you? I’m not— I haven’t seen you so adrift since—”
Her defenses rose quickly, popped up like springs, and she pulled her hand away. “Since
?” Challenging him to say it. Daring him to acknowledge what she’d known all along, that things hadn’t been quite
between them in years; that they weren’t off-kilter as a couple solely because of Jonah’s arrival.
Matt looked suddenly tired. “I’d just like for us to tread lightly with this, Violet. In the interest of our children. And—ourselves. Our family.”
” she said.
They persisted like this, one of those eternal, infernal absurdist conversations, through their entrées, both of them eating quickly, eager to leave. But she’d forgotten that she’d mentioned to the hostess when she made the reservation—as leverage, for a table by the window overlooking the river, which she’d barely glanced at throughout the meal, so engaged was she in this frustrating marital tennis match—that it was an anniversary dinner.
“Compliments of the chef,” the waitress said, setting a chocolate croissant the size of a fanny pack on the table between them. “Happy anniversary.”
They both stared at it wistfully, a powdered-sugared visitor from a time before.
En route to her parents’ house, Liza allowed herself to imagine an alternative reality, one perhaps occurring at this very moment in a parallel universe: college sweethearts, newly pregnant, showing up at the childhood home of the mother-to-be, some coy demonstration with balloons or sonograms, everyone delighted: laughter, sparkling cider, the works.
Instead she was gripping the steering wheel and staring through the windshield with the grim determination of someone headed to a parole hearing, Ryan quiet in the passenger seat with a bouquet of camellias wilting in his lap. He reached across the console and took her hand, forcing her to look over in his direction. He was smiling at her, a real smile, and she lifted the corners of her mouth in turn, not quite faking it, because the sight of him happy still lightened her. They’d had a few very good weeks after the test came back positive. She’d tried to think of something to say that sounded less binding than “I’m pregnant” and instead said, “I think I might be having a baby,” to which Ryan had looked understandably confused, and she’d clarified that she
rather than thought, and the
wouldn’t be happening until the new year, and Ryan had hugged her with his whole body, like he used to, and kissed her with hunger and confidence, and told her he loved her, that of course it didn’t matter that it hadn’t been planned, that there had never been news this good in the history of the human race. And for a while he’d seemed to rally, as though the unexpected news were a potion she’d injected directly into his veins, and she began to wonder if it could possibly be this easy, if all it would take to get Ryan back to his old self was a big surprise, a little jolt, an ice pack to the amygdala. Liza had a postgraduate degree that assured her this was impossible, and yet she’d clung to the life raft for days, watching him out of the corner of her eye: the bounce in his step, the energy in his voice.
“You nervous?” he asked her now, and she shook her head.
“Why would I be?”
He was quiet, possibly wounded.
“I mean I’m
” she said, squeezing his hand, approximating enthusiasm. “You going to be okay tonight, do you think?”
She often wondered if this was what it was like to have an alcoholic as a partner, or a Republican: she and Ryan had grown used to their routine, the psyching up during the car ride over, assurances that they wouldn’t stay late. They even had a signal, like spies, where Ryan would massage his Adam’s apple between his left thumb and forefinger, which meant
time to go.
Because he got tired, or paranoid, or started spacing out.
Of course now, after the post-baby-news honeymoon respite, everything was beginning to get bad again. But she couldn’t impart this news to her parents without him; her powers of invention that got him out of family dinners were only so strong.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“You’ll let me know if you—”
“I said I’m fine.”
Alternate-universe Ryan would never snap at her; alternate-universe Ryan would say, “The real question is how are
feeling, darling?” to his anxious pregnant girlfriend. They might be married, in the alternate universe, she considered, pulling into the driveway. She would definitely be less nauseated.