On Second Thought

Page 16


Six years, the lucky bitch. Eloise murmured to her, and Brooke came in for a group hug.
Them, the popular girls in high school. Me, my panty hose rolling down.
“Where’s the bathroom?” my grandmother asked loudly. “I shouldn’t have had all that Pepsi at lunch.”
“Come with me, Gram-Gram,” Ainsley said.
“Kate.” The ex-wife was in front of me, trembling, pressing her lips together. Should I try to out-grieve her? Should I also wail and collapse?
Then I looked in her eyes, and all my bitchery evaporated.
She had really loved him.
“Hi. I’m...I’m so sorry,” I said, and my mouth wobbled, because I was so sorry, so sorry I hadn’t taken better care of Nathan. She’d kept him alive for six years. I lost him in our first.
“Forgive me for...that,” she whispered, tears spilling out of her beautiful eyes.
“No, no. It was an honest moment.” Sheesh. Listen to me.
“I’m sure he loved you very much.”
“Right back at you.”
Eloise gave me an odd look.
How did he ever get over her? She was flippin’ beautiful. I would marry her, she was so stunning. And why didn’t she want his babies? It would make things a lot better for the Coburns if there was a little Nathan running around this place, let me tell you. Madeleine was probably a selfish whore.
Eloise put her arm around her and ushered her away. I wondered if I said that selfish whore bit aloud.
“Thank you for coming,” I said belatedly, my voice sounding cheerful, as if I were waving fondly as best friends left after dinner.
Cause of death: blunt trauma to the head.
If my sister had gone for wood counters, or soapstone, would Nathan still be alive?
Apparently, he had a tiny little oddity in one of the blood vessels in his brain. Not a problem, unless one’s wife needed a second glass of wine.
Cause of death: wife wanted to have buzz on during irritating speech by sister’s boyfriend.
Couldn’t Eric just have asked Ainsley to marry him in private, like a normal person, I don’t know, like maybe five years ago? Instead, he had to make a big production in front of everyone, in front of his Wellness Montage (it had been labeled, and really, who the hell photographs the removal of a testicle?). No, we all had to drink a toast to my little sister, and boom, I’m a fucking widow.
I looked at the line, which went out the door, out into the foyer and down the street. When we pulled up to the funeral home, the line of mourners was four people thick and wrapped around the block. So much black it looked like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones had descended. That was two hours ago, and the line showed no sign of thinning.
Everyone loved him.
Nine months ago, I hadn’t. Nine months ago, I hadn’t known him. I’d finally gotten to that happy Zen place, and life had been really, really good.
If he had tripped nine months ago, I wouldn’t have even known about it. Seven months ago, I would’ve lost a very sweet guy I’d been seeing. I would’ve been melancholy for a while. Would’ve made a black joke about how the universe was telling me not to date. Five months ago, I would’ve mourned him, would’ve wondered if we had truly been in love or if it was just infatuation. I would’ve gone to his wake and introduced myself to his mother as a friend, smiled sadly when I thought of him.
Four months ago, I would’ve lost my fiancé, but I still wouldn’t have known the reality of living with him day after day.
Ninety-six days of marriage.
I drifted over to the casket and, for the first time this endless evening, took a long look at my husband’s body.
That woman had been wrong. He looked absolutely dead. His face was hard and stiff, like one of those plastic surgery addicts, pumped up on filler. I wondered if the funeral home used the same stuff. Juvaderm. Botox.
Oh, Nathan.
At least his hair felt the same. My fingers stroked it, gently, trying not to make contact with his scalp. Just his hair, soft, silky hair that curled a little when he was sweaty. Roman emperor hair, I said once. We were in bed at the time. His smile...
It was Eric. Cause of death: extremely long-winded speech.
“Hey,” I bit out.
“You doing okay?”
“Not really.”
He put his arm around me, and I felt a pang of regret. Eric had always been a decent guy, if self-absorbed. “I was telling Sean about how weird this was, given my cancer. Like there’s some meaning here.”
The irritation came swooping back like a vengeful eagle. “There’s not, so please. None of your platitudes, Eric.”
He blinked. “I...I just meant life is short. You have to live life large.”
“Not now, Eric.”
“It’s almost a message from the universe. You know I loved him, too. And I thought I’d be the one who died. You know? From my cancer?”
“I vaguely remember, yes.”
“It’s just so random. When I was getting chemo, there were days when I thought this was the end, and I said to myself—”
“Here, Kate.” My sister pressed a glass of water into my hand. “Mrs. Coburn wants you to meet someone. Nathan’s friend from Columbia.”
Saved by the mourners. My sister steered Eric away, and I took another long look at my husband.
I love you, I thought desperately, and at almost the exact same time, another thought came, hard and defiantly ugly.
I wish we’d never met.
Chapter Seven
“Just when I’d accepted the divorce,” Candy liked to tell people on book tour, “Phil showed up with his child.”
I remembered thinking at age three and a half that it would be fun to live with a lady named Candy, that her house would be sparkly and we’d eat mostly pink foods. There’d be a lot of singing, I imagined.
There wasn’t. Candy sighed a lot. She had a daily headache.
Hence, my childhood of guilt. Candy would buckle me briskly into a car seat, then wince as she stood up, hands on her back. She was in her forties when I came to live with her, and she’d tell her friends that she’d forgotten just how hard little kids were. She was dutiful, showing up at parent-teacher conferences because Dad was off with the boys of summer. She made sure I ate nutritious—and tasteless—dinners, but it was pretty clear. I was not her daughter. She already had one of those.
When I came along, Candy had been working on her PhD. It took her four more years to finish her dissertation, which became her most famous book—Stuck with You: Raising the Recalcitrant Stepchild. It took me decades to figure out it was about me.
Unlike Sean and Kate, I was a day-care kid. From their stories, it seemed they were raised in a magical kingdom of sibling friendship and parental delight. Candy baked back then, coconut cookies and angel food cake. Kate and Sean had stories of the time their mother made a tepee in the living room over winter break, or read The Wind in the Willows out loud, doing all the voices to perfection. Sean and Kate even shared a room until he turned seven.
There were dozens of pictures of them before I came along, laughing together, arms slung around each other, Sean steadying Kate on her bike, the two of them eating Popsicles on a summer day, or standing in front of the house on the first day of school, Kate’s hair in neat ponytails, Sean’s freshly cut.
Day care was fine. To the best of my knowledge, I was never dropped on my head or burned with cigarettes or put in toddler fight club. When I started kindergarten at the age of four and a half, I went to after-school programs, envious of the kids who got to ride the bus home.