“SO, WE’RE NOT going to tell them,” Curt said. His gaze remained fixed on the road ahead. Dusk spread a warm pink glaze over the asphalt, the forest of pine trees lining the road, and the windshield of his BMW Z4. His “midlife crisis,” Ellie had dubbed the coupe when he’d bought it last year. Not that either of them believed an expensive sports car was the solution to a crisis. But his daughters were grown and gone, and a man turned fifty only once in his life—if he was lucky enough to live that long.
He loved the car’s snug cockpit, the burled wood dashboard and the upholstery’s leather smell. Right now, however, the coupe seemed too small, too intimate. They should have taken Ellie’s old Toyota. Maybe he would have been able to breathe in that car.
“We’re not going to tell them,” she confirmed. “We’ve already decided the girls are the first people we’ll tell, and we aren’t going to dump this on them over the phone. They’ll be home for Thanksgiving. We’ll discuss it with them then, face to face.”
“And in the meantime, we’re just supposed to pretend everything is fine.”
“I think we can fake it for an evening, don’t you?”
He sighed. They’d been faking it for a long time already, he supposed. He wasn’t sure exactly when in the past few months he and Ellie had decided to get a divorce, at what point they’d crossed that line, what moment they’d acknowledged that certain wounds just weren’t going to heal. But the word divorce had finally invaded their conversations, and neither had flinched or backed off from it. They’d been moving in this direction for a long time, and now the destination was in sight.
So how the hell were they supposed to get through dinner with Ellie’s parents tonight? “It’s Ellie’s fiftieth birthday,” his mother-in-law had pointed out. “Curt got himself that expensive hot rod when he turned fifty. The least you can do is let us take the two of you out for dinner to celebrate Ellie’s milestone.” She’d made a reservation at a historical inn twenty miles west of Boston, one of those quaint, pretty places that Curt and Ellie had always intended to check out but never had.
Curt got along with his in-laws—sometimes better than Ellie did. He was the Harvard Law School graduate who’d married their headstrong daughter. How could they not adore him?
But he sure as hell didn’t want to spend the evening with them, listening to them sing “Happy Birthday” to Ellie when he and she were already mulling over who should get custody of the snow-blower and the china.
He could feel the tension wrapped around her like a silent hum as she sat in the scoop-shaped seat beside him. He didn’t have to look at her to picture the tight line of her mouth, the clench of her jaw, but he glanced in her direction anyway. Her hands lay rigid in her lap, as if she was struggling not to curl them into fists. He could practically see her nostrils quiver with each breath she took.
Ever since she’d come home from Ghana, she’d looked… Fantastic, damn it. She’d lost weight while she was gone—not that she’d been fat, but she’d accumulated a little extra padding during the past few awful years, and it had melted away beneath the African sun. Her profile was sleek, her cheeks almost gaunt, making her eyes appear twice as big as before. She’d cut her hair short, but it had grown back a bit and now fell in a chin-length pageboy, the brown laced with strands of silver. No more of those reddish-blond highlights she used to have bleached into her tresses at the salon. He’d never been a big fan of that streaky hair coloring. Silver was more honest, more stripped down—like everything that remained of their life together.
She also dressed differently since returning from Africa, favoring
shapless, swirling outfits in bold patterns and neutral colors, fabrics that draped over her taut body and emphasized her slenderness. She’d abandoned the fancy jewelry she used to love—the diamond stud earrings, the tennis bracelet, all the glittery, expensive trinkets Curt had lavished on her over the years. Tonight she had on simple gold hoop earrings and a necklace made of rough-hewn chunks of amber.
And her wedding band along with the diamond eternity ring he’d given her as a tenth-anniversary present. If they were faking it, she needed to wear her rings.
He wore his wedding band, too. He’d removed it a month ago in a final concession to the inevitable. She hadn’t been wearing hers when she’d arrived home from Ghana. He wondered exactly when she’d removed it, if she’d taken it off for a specific reason. He’d asked her more than once, and her refusal to offer a straight answer was still eating at him.
Fake it, he reminded himself, pushing his anger away. Just for tonight. Get through this evening.
Pretending to be her devoted, loving husband for the time it took to eat dinner might just be the most costly birthday present he’d ever given her.
SHE KNEW CURT didn’t want to do drive to this stupid inn for dinner. She didn’t want to, either. But how did you deny your parents the pleasure of celebrating your fiftieth birthday? She couldn’t have said, Curt and I don’t feel like partying, Mom. We’re getting a divorce.
They weren’t going to discuss the divorce with anyone before their daughters knew about it. And with Jessie away at college and Katie working as an intern for one of the television networks in New York City—glamorous work, lousy pay, but it was a start—Ellie just couldn’t break the news to the girls long-distance. It was the kind of thing parents ought to tell their children in person, so they could comfort and reassure them, hug them and wipe their tears.
“Should we have some small talk ready?” Curt asked. “Something we can tell your folks when they ask how everything is. Maybe we should rehearse. Come up with a script.”
“If we’re putting on a show, you can sing that song from Evita,” she suggested, allowing herself a slight smile. Curt often broke into a chorus of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” except that he always substituted a more relevant phrase in place of Argentina. “Don’t cry for me, Martha Stewart,” he’d sung to the TV set when the domestic diva had faced her legal struggles. “Don’t cry for me, burger patties,” he would croon as he fired up the grill. “Don’t cry for me, Kate and Jessie,” he used to serenade his daughters when they were in high school and pestering him for bigger allowances and later curfews.
“If I sing, they’ll kick us out of the restaurant.”
“No, they won’t. You have a lovely voice.”
Curt shot her a glance, as if not quite believing she could have said something nice about him. She could think of plenty of valid compliments, though. He did have a beautiful voice, and he was a superb lawyer, and he was as handsome today as the evening he’d run into her on the campus green some thirty years ago, and invited her back to the apartment on Hope Street that he’d been sharing with his friend Steve, and poured her a glass of bourbon and assured her that she wasn’t a disaster, even though everyone else who mattered had done their best to convince her that she was.
Along with the compliments, she could also say about Curt that he had made a major mistake—just as she had—and that some mistakes could not be overcome. No matter how hard you tried, no matter how willing you were to forgive, no matter how many sutures you used to close a wound, sometimes the scar was simply too ugly to bear.
“We don’t have to rehearse,” she assured him, staring forward. He directed his attention back to the road, but when they stopped for a red light he looked at her again. She pretended his gaze didn’t unsettle her. “My parents will ask you about work. You always have plenty to say about that. They’ll ask me about work. I’ll tell them it’s fine. Then they’ll ask about the girls. That ought to carry us through to dessert.”
He nodded, then shifted gears when the light switched to green. “The turn-off should be coming up soon,” he said.
She scrutinized the road, searching for the sign that would direct them to the inn. At another time—a few years ago, in a happier past—she would have been eager to dine at the landmark restaurant. It had been written up in tourist brochures and history books, a must-see for people in the area. She wondered what magic her parents had performed to get a dinner reservation on a Saturday evening during the peak leaf season, when visitors from all over the country invaded New England to admire the region’s autumn foliage.
Even as a native New Englander, Ellie used to get excited about the leaves blazing with color each fall. This year, however, she couldn’t get excited about anything. Not the autumn foliage. Not dinner at a famous inn. Not her fiftieth birthday.
The sky had faded to a deep blue by the time they found the entrance. Sunset leeched all the color from the scenery, turning the trees into silhouettes and shrubs into clouds of black resting along the ground. Up ahead, at the end of a winding drive, the inn sprawled grandly, two white clapboard stories below a steeply peaked roof, with wings extending on either side. Lights designed to resemble gas lamps illuminated the slate walk from the parking lot to the pillared front porch, which was bathed in a welcoming glow from wrought-iron lamps flanking the paneled front door.
“Charming,” Curt said dryly. He’d always been immune to old New England charm—“Old-ee,” he called it, spoofing the many establishments in the Boston suburbs that featured the word Olde in their names. Ellie’s parents loved “old-ee” things. The décor of their modest house was colonial, and every horizontal surface held “old-ee” knickknacks and collectibles. Her parents couldn’t afford old things—genuine antiques—so they compensated with an abundance of “old-ee” dust collectors.
Curt parked the car, and Ellie climbed out before he could circle around to assist her. A serenade of late-season crickets greeted her as she straightened, and her lungs filled with the scent of pine needles and damp earth and wood-burning fireplaces. She adjusted the gauzy black jacket of her outfit, felt to make sure the clasp of her necklace was positioned at her nape, finger-combed her hair smooth—and ordered herself to stop fidgeting. The time for faking had arrived.
Curt locked the car, then reached for her hand and tucked it into the bend of his elbow—his own attempt to fake it. The wool of his suit jacket was smooth and soft against her palm, and his conservative silk tie was knotted tight against his throat. He hated having to dress up on the weekends—five days a week was more than enough, he insisted—but he’d been willing to costume himself appropriately for the role he had to play tonight: the doting husband of the birthday girl.
Ellie would play her role, too: the loving wife. In her bid for an Oscar, she let her hand rest in the crook of his arm and matched her steps to his as he escorted her up the walk to the inn’s entrance.
She and Curt touched each other so rarely lately. Sometimes they seemed to go out of their way to avoid accidentally bumping into each other at the kitchen sink or in the garage, or in bed. Either of them could have moved into one of the house’s three other bedrooms, but they hadn’t. Stubbornness, maybe. Habit. Whatever it was that kept them in the same bed, they’d learned how to leave a safe buffer of space between their bodies on the king-size mattress.
A hostess in a colonial dress of pale blue topped with a frilly white pinafore greeted them as they entered the inn. The aromas of hearty food and pine logs burning in hearths surrounded them. Ellie’s hand instinctively tightened around Curt’s elbow. She wanted to comment on the delicious fragrances, the ancient patterned rug running the length of the entry hall, the elegant brass wall sconces and the dimly lit taproom to their right. Years ago she and Curt would have swapped their opinions about the inn, compared impressions, debated which artifacts were old and which were “old-ee.” Now she simply stood beside him, clinging but trying not to, while he gave the hostess their name.
“Yes, of course,” the hostess said, skimming the reservations book spread open on her desk and then smiling at them. Her blond curls were tucked under a quaint bonnet, but her makeup was decidedly twenty-first century. “Please follow me.”
She led them past the taproom, past a large, bustling dining room and down another hall. “Jeez,” Curt muttered, softly enough that only Ellie would hear him. “Where are they seating us? In the kitchen?”
“Maybe you have to bribe someone to get a good table,” Ellie muttered back. “My parents would never have thought of that.”
Around a corner and down another short hall, the hostess halted in front of a closed door. “Your party is waiting for you here,” she said, rapping the door with her knuckles and then swinging it open.
Ellie realized how literally she’d meant party when a raucous chorus of “Surprise!” and “Happy birthday, Ellie!” exploded through the doorway, a barrage of cheers and hollers aimed at her. She staggered backward, but Curt stood behind her, blocking her escape and also preventing her from falling.
She twisted to glare at him; if he’d conspired with her parents behind her back, especially with their marriage in its death throes, she would never forgive him. But he appeared as shocked as she felt, and he shook his head. “I swear, Ellie…” he whispered. He didn’t have to say more. She knew he hadn’t been in on this.
Sucking in a breath, she cautiously entered the room. In the crowd she spotted her parents, a few neighbors and co-workers, her brothers and sisters-in-law, college friends and—God help her—her daughters. Katie and Jessie, in dresses and high heels and nylons, grinned gleefully and lifted goblets of wine in Ellie’s direction. Jessie was only twenty. Who had served her a glass of wine?
As if that mattered. As if anything mattered besides the fact that this room was filled with her loved ones, and her husband stood at her back, and faking it would now force them to perform in front of a much larger audience than she’d ever expected.