Commentary Magazine


Past Due

He was thirty when they met, Nina twenty-one and a few weeks out of college, her diploma in an unopened envelope under the bed she had slept in since girlhood, her job search stalled by inertia and the unhappy disorientation of living again under her parents’ roof after four years away. He was tall and sunburned and talked too much in her presence, something that surprised her because she did not think that a handsome man nine years her senior should feel as if she had an advantage of any kind. His name was Pierre, but if she wanted to call him Peter, this would be all right with him. She preferred Pierre, and only called him Peter after they were married and she was angry and wanted to be sure that he knew it.

It was her father who had introduced them on a morning in late May, the sky boiling green, about to unsheathe long swords of lightning and set loose a funnel cloud two towns over. Nina’s mother sent her to pick up her father at the golf course a mile down the street an hour earlier than planned, though Nina doubted that he would be at the clubhouse waiting for her, this in the era before cellphones. He was there, however, with Pierre, and the younger man’s smile froze when over her father’s shoulder he noticed Nina hesitating in the doorway, searching the room for a middle-aged golfer in a pink Lacoste shirt and green plaid pants. At home and at work, her father usually wore conservative blues and grays, but on the course he was an unconvincing but earnest preppy. Pierre, on the other hand, looked the part in his less flamboyant khaki pants and yellow polo, his sun-streaked brown hair flattened beneath a white visor with Titleist stitched across the band.

Years later her father would apologize, saying to Nina that he should have known better, that he had liked Pierre but had not known him well enough to trust him. His apology both irritated and saddened her because her father couldn’t have predicted any of what eventually happened. For one, Pierre’s shortcomings—and her own—were commonplace and took years to reveal themselves fully. People made mistakes and behaved selfishly. It was futile to imagine that this could be avoided with any consistency.

But when they met, Pierre was so charming and good-looking, and had such an air of glamour about him that men her age generally didn’t, that she fell for him quickly. He worked as one of six golf instructors at the course her street dead-ended into, not her father’s favorite links in the area but certainly the most convenient and also respectable enough. Pierre’s rate for private lessons was sixty dollars for thirty minutes or one hundred for an hour. That was a lot of money in 1991—but in 1991, her father had money and so, it seemed, did Pierre. Her father held onto his; Pierre did not, though he did not lose it all at once.

At least she didn’t think he had; it was impossible to know for sure, because when he died of a heart attack twenty-one years later, he left her $87,000 in debt, not including the mortgage on the house they had lived in for seven years on Spruce Street in Berkeley, a property on which he had taken out a second mortgage and a separate line of equity, ostensibly for home improvement, her name signed to both of these loans, but it was he who had signed for her, without her knowledge. Within a few weeks of his death, she was being called by people with querulous voices from cities and states far and near, people who worked for collection agencies, law offices, credit card companies she hadn’t known he’d taken out lines of credit from—the bills going to a post office box that only he had the combination for. It was business correspondence, he insisted, dismissing her occasional anxiety over his unwillingness to allow her access to it.

They had a solid roof over their heads and food to eat, didn’t they? Yes, because she brought in a decent salary as a registered nurse. But he had paid for her to go back to school to get that degree, hadn’t he? Yes and no. Her parents had covered some of her tuition, and so had she with a part-time waitressing job. And the down payment on their Spruce Street house had been made with an inheritance from her maternal grandmother, facts Pierre preferred to ignore.

Other callers were old, aggrieved investors in his entrepreneurial flops whom Nina barely remembered, if she knew of them at all. Every one of them wanted money, often several thousand dollars. There was even a fossil-grade student loan, one that Pierre had allowed to drag on for decades by transferring it from bank to bank, paying only the minimum monthly amount, when he had paid it at all.

How, her exhausted, angry father and bewildered, sympathetic friends wanted to know, had she allowed this to happen to herself? How had Pierre managed to borrow and squander so much money without her knowing what he was up to? And why on earth had she stayed with him for so long, especially when along with his financial missteps, he had had at least one affair?

All questions that she had asked herself many times, the answers always shifting, complicated, filled with qualifiers.

“Excuses,” her father said, no matter how she replied.

“I’m so sorry,” her mother said.

“I am, too,” Nina said. “But at least I’m still relatively young.”

“Yes, you are,” her mother agreed. “Thank goodness.”

“You shouldn’t have married that deadbeat,” said her father, as querulous as the debt collectors. “You wouldn’t have wasted twenty years of your life.”

“Dad, stop. You’re not helping,” said Nina. “Pierre had his good points, too.”

“Yes, he had the grace to die before he took on even more debt and drove you further into the poorhouse with his bonehead schemes.”

She was forty-two, a widow, not a divorcée, which mattered, she realized, when she went online and furtively looked at the dating sites she had previously dismissed as suitable only for the desperate or the philandering and egomaniacal, despite knowing that several friends had met their spouses through these sites.

But more urgent than her desire to find someone to sleep next to each night was her need to find a housemate who would help to postpone the loss of her home in the Berkeley Hills, the prettiest place she had ever lived.

She did not want to rent to a man or an undergraduate of either sex or a woman with a husband, children, or a boyfriend who planned to stay the night more than once or twice a week. She hoped for a foreign visiting professor or postdoctoral fellow, someone tactful and quiet and bright and unlikely to be around very often. She also wanted two thousand dollars a month. After all, the house was large, and her housemate would have a garage space, the run of the second floor, plus kitchen and laundry privileges, and her home had two flourishing gardens, one for roses, the other for vegetables, both lush and lovingly maintained. Also required would be a security deposit: a month and a half’s rent. She realized, with the economy’s being in such a bad state, that her criteria were nearly impossible to meet.

Which was why, after two months of listing and relisting her ad on Craigslist, and in the university and city weeklies, shaving a few dollars off the rent each time, she ended up renting half of her house to her dead husband’s former lover.

It had taken only a few seconds for Nina to recognize Pierre’s ex-mistress, Jackie Grumetz, whose hair color had darkened from blond to light brown—her natural color, Nina suspected, and who now went by Jacqueline Henry, when she appeared at the front door, flustered, a few minutes late, worried that she had hit both a squirrel and a bird on her hasty trajectory from her aunt’s house in Oakland where she was living temporarily in the midst of divorce proceedings, hoping to get her feet replanted on the ground as a single woman.

Almost ten years had passed since the affair had ended, and until now, Nina believed that she and Pierre had left behind this other woman and all that she implied about their marriage when they moved from Illinois to California a year and a half later.

From what Nina could tell, Jackie did not know who she was. They had never met, but while shopping for a birthday present for her mother at the old Marshall Field’s on State Street, Nina had nearly blundered into her husband and this other woman talking in the cosmetics section with their heads close, an irrefutable air of intimacy between them. For months she had suspected that Pierre was seeing someone else, but he would not admit it, and even with incontrovertible evidence before her, Nina had still been reluctant to approach him and this stylish blond woman who looked older than Nina had imagined her husband’s mistress would be. She could not bring herself to confront the couple in such a public place, certain that Pierre would lie and that she would tearfully yell at him and this pretty but serious-looking woman, the confrontation devolving into a humiliating scene, one strangers would later laugh over with their friends, describing how pathetic Nina had been, and how ridiculous. Didn’t she have any self-respect? No wonder the guy was cheating on her!

Instead, she had trailed them for several minutes, her breath coming in painful, suppressed gasps as she followed behind, the pair brazenly holding hands (wasn’t he at all afraid of seeing someone he knew?), from perfume counter to handbag display to the Frango mint counter in the basement and back up the escalator to women’s shoes, where Nina stood behind a mirrored pillar, pretending to fix her hair and touch up her lipstick as she watched her rival choose a pair of black, high-heeled sandals, try them on and then bashfully (but coyly, too, it had seemed to Nina) present the box to Pierre, which he paid for with a credit card that was probably a few dollars short of its limit.

As Nina would eventually learn, Jackie was only two years younger than she was, bigger-breasted and blond but not the bimbo caricature Nina had, ten years earlier, strenuously wanted her to be. Her former rival was, she revealed now, a professor of comparative literature, and three years prior to this meeting on Nina’s doorstep, she had been offered a part-time position as a spousal hire when UC-Berkeley bestowed on her husband (now nearly ex-husband) a tenure-track job teaching wildlife ecology for the environmental-sciences department.

It was hard for Nina to speak naturally while she went through the pantomime of showing her the house, its backyard and garage, answering Jackie’s bright questions about the neighbors, laundry, Internet access. Of course Nina could not share a house with her, not this house, not any. The way she had suffered over the affair, the jealousy and humiliation she had felt that night, confronting him when he came whistling through the door at 6:30, as promised, saying tearfully to his blank then sheepish face that she had seen him, that he had hurt her more than anyone had ever hurt her. And when at first he denied being the man who had bought his mistress an expensive pair of shoes that afternoon in Marshall Field’s, this had injured Nina more. Did he really think that she was so stupid, that she would not recognize her own husband, the man she had slept next to for a decade?

When he finally admitted that he had done what she was accusing him of, he promised to make it up to her, swore that he would break it off with Jackie, and then, it seemed, he had, which was one reason why Nina hadn’t left him, the other being that she still loved him, despite her desire not to.

She knew it shouldn’t have, but it surprised her how much this betrayal hurt—her having sternly told herself many times by then that she would leave him, soon if not immediately, that she could do better, that he was unreliable and could not make any business venture profitable, no matter how hard he claimed to try. But there was always golf to fall back on, and it was true, more or less. He was a PGA-certified instructor with good references and an affable style that other men liked. If the golf-themed restaurant failed, or the clothing-import partnership, or the organic ice-cream shop, or the super-lightweight golf bag and titanium clubs he was hoping to make millions from, he could always go back to giving lessons. People still knew who he was; his pro career might have been short-lived, but course managers still remembered his miraculous day at Augusta. It had been a fluke, as it turned out, but no one had held this against him.

When they were standing on the patio overlooking Nina’s backyard, Jackie gave her a look of concern and said, “Are you feeling all right? You’re a little pale.”

“I think I’m getting a sinus headache,” she said weakly. “My allergies have been bothering me lately.”

“Maybe you need to sit down?” Jackie said.

Nina shook her head. “It’s not that bad, but thank you.”

The other woman hesitated. “Are there a lot of people who want to live here? Do I have a chance? I love this place. I’m ready to write you a check right now.”

Nina closed her eyes for a second, pretending the headache was throbbing. Jackie made a sympathetic sound.

“I’ll have to get back to you,” said Nina, rubbing her temples. She felt stupid but desperate for Jackie not to know that she was faking the headache. “It should just be a couple of days.”

“I could give you two months’ rent for the security deposit if that would help my cause.”

Nina shook her head. “No, that’s not necessary.” Though it would have helped, at least temporarily. No one else who had come to see the house had made such a generous, reckless offer. Jackie by far was the best tenant who had applied. It was a bitter irony that she also happened to be Pierre’s ex-girlfriend. Even from the grave, her husband continued to heap misery upon her. (But whose fault is that? she could hear her father grouchily intone. You let yourself be taken advantage of.)

Jackie gave her a small, pained smile. “I know, but the offer stands.”

It took six nights of very poor sleep and three other prospective tenants, each more demoralizingly unsuitable than the previous, for Nina to call Jackie and say yes, she would rent the second floor of the house to her, and when Jackie offered again to give her two months’ rent for the security deposit, Nina took a long, quiet breath before she said: “You should know something before you sign the lease. I didn’t have any pictures of him up when you saw the house, but you knew my husband. He died unexpectedly six months ago. You might have seen the obituary in the paper, but I don’t know if you read that section. I never did before Pierre died. Now I do look at it once or twice a week. I’m not sure why, but I do.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end. “Pierre?” Jackie finally said, nervousness causing her voice to crack. “Schultz?”

“Yes.”

“You’re his wife?”

“Yes,” Nina repeated. “I was his wife. You really didn’t know?”

Another pause. “I think I did,” said Jackie. “But I wasn’t sure.”

“This probably is a very bad idea.”

“Leasing to me?” said Jackie. “No, I don’t think so. What happened was a long time ago. I’m all right with it if you are.” She drew a shaky breath. “I’m sorry that it happened at all. It must have been hard for you. I didn’t know he was married when I started seeing him. After I found out, we weren’t together much longer. There’s more to it than that, but I doubt you want to hear about it.”

Nina exhaled quietly. “No, I don’t think I do.”

Of course Jackie’s story would differ from Pierre’s, and likely it was the truer version of what had happened. Nina did want to hear what the other woman had to say, but she knew enough not to probe an old wound while trying to make a practical decision about her domestic arrangements. She had asked three friends if they thought that she should rent to her husband’s ex-mistress, who, Nina soon learned, had a flawless credit history and strong references. Two of the friends had told her not to rent to Jackie, one emphatic, one less so; the third had said to go ahead if she really would lose the house, but added the caveat that Nina needed to believe that she could forgive Jackie, or had already forgiven her, before she allowed her to move in. She didn’t ask her parents for their opinions. She had not told them about Pierre’s affair; she had told very few people about it.

“I’ll be the perfect tenant,” Jackie said now. “You’ll hardly even know I’m there.”

Nina felt her stomach shift uneasily. “All right,” she said. “Let’s do a six-month lease. If it goes well, you can renew for a year, maybe two if you’d like, though I’m not sure if you’d want to tie yourself down for that long.”

“Six months to start, and we’ll take it from there,” Jackie agreed. “I can live with that. Thank you for taking a chance on me. I promise that I won’t be any trouble.”

She moved in four days later, a Wednesday in mid-June, insisting that Nina accept two months’ rent for the security deposit, Nina both embarrassed and grateful. Jackie had hired two of her former students, one tall and bushy-bearded, the other not tall but strong and efficient, to help her move a desk, three filing cabinets, a queen-size bed, a leather armchair and ottoman, several suitcases and lamps, a love seat, and two boxes of rattling dishes. Nina involuntarily winced when she heard the shifting china, worrying that her new housemate would have an unpleasant surprise when she opened the boxes, though she wouldn’t need to use her own dishes unless she really wanted to. Nina had cleared out five cupboards for her in the kitchen, half of the upstairs hall linen closet, the guest bedroom and its closet, which was now Jackie’s room. She also had her own bathroom, a small study with a door connecting it to her bedroom, and a space in the garage for her compact Japanese car, the same kind, Nina had been both heartened and alarmed to see on the day Jackie first visited the house, that she drove. But Jackie’s was red, and Nina’s smoke gray.

“It’s strange for me to have a roommate at all,” Nina told Mary Jo, her closest friend at the hospital on Ashby Avenue where they both worked as surgical nurses. “I feel like I’m in college again.”

“You could sell it and pay off most of Pierre’s debts, couldn’t you?”

Nina bristled. “Yes, I could,” she said, “but I don’t want to move. I don’t know when I will want to either. I’ve been happier here than anywhere else I’ve lived.”

“Maybe eventually you could buy it back.”

Nina shook her head. “I doubt it.”

“I’m sure you’ll get used to Jackie being there with you.”

“I kind of worry that she’ll try to find a diary or other personal things of Pierre’s that I haven’t donated yet or put in storage.”

Mary Jo made a face. “Didn’t you think about that before you had her sign the lease?”

“I don’t know if I did. I guess not.”

“She probably won’t do that. She’s been married and divorced since then, hasn’t she? And as far as you know, she didn’t try to contact Pierre after he broke it off with her, did she?”

“I have no idea. I think he lied about how things ended between them. She offered to tell me her side of it, but I told her that I wasn’t interested.”

Mary Jo looked at her, the expression on her freckled, pink-cheeked face guarded. She had a husband and a five-year-old son, both of whom adored her, and there was an amiable directness in her manner that had immediately drawn Nina in when they started working together three years earlier.

“Is that true?” her friend asked.

“What, that I’m not interested?”

Mary Jo nodded. “You must be. I would be.”

“I am. I just didn’t want to admit it. Not yet.”

“She probably knows.”

“I suppose she does.”

Mary Jo hesitated. “I want to meet her sometime. Of course I’m curious.”

“That’d be fine, but I don’t know what her schedule is. I think she teaches a summer class four days a week, but she told me that she’s usually home by three. She also said she’ll be out some nights. I don’t think she has a boyfriend, but I’m not sure. Her divorce hasn’t yet been finalized.”

“Why is she getting a divorce?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe her husband cheated on her.”

“Maybe.”

“That’d be ironic.”

“Yes, I guess it would be,” said Nina. “I doubt that’s the reason, though.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t seem to feel sorry for herself at all.”

She seemed so enthusiastic about her new living situation—the bright, many-windowed rooms in Nina’s house, the garage space, the backyard trellises with their effusion of clematis and climbing roses—the American Beauties and William Baffins that Nina had painstakingly nurtured since inheriting them from the previous owners, a retired couple that had moved to a condominium in San Mateo but still came by once or twice a year to admire their old roses. (“They’re making sure you haven’t killed them,” Pierre had complained, annoyed by the intrusion, but Nina hadn’t minded. The rosebushes were flourishing, and she was proud of her green thumb, the former owners good-naturedly congratulating her on each visit.)

Maybe Jackie was someone whose default mode was happiness. Perhaps even if her husband had cheated on her, she might only have gotten angry, filed for divorce, and then gotten over it.

It was a week and a half after Jackie moved in that her forwarded mail started to appear, the letters all addressed to Jacqueline Henry or to Mrs. Holden Henry, Nina lingering over the envelopes as she sorted out her own mail, catalogs, and other junk usually, or bills with accusatory block letters printed in red across the envelopes’ faces: PAST DUE, PAY IMMEDIATELY, FINAL NOTICE. The bill collectors had acquired her street address now that she had let the subscription to Pierre’s post office box lapse, and everything that it used to swallow in silence was being forwarded home to her. Mary Jo’s husband was an attorney, and he was helping her sort through the financial morass she’d inherited, as was a banker he trusted. With the banker’s guidance, Nina was consolidating Pierre’s debts. Some she paid off with her savings and an indefinite loan from her parents, and others she set up payment plans for, with interest rates she didn’t want to think about. The ongoing worries over money were what made it hard for her to sleep at night, not jealous paranoia that her new housemate was snooping in old closets and drawers, looking for parts of Pierre to steal.

In fact, it seemed as if Jackie didn’t give much thought to Pierre at all; she was busy with her summer class, and, as it turned out, with her husband, the officious-sounding Holden. (Was it a family name or were his parents Salinger fans? Nina wondered.) With a self-deprecating laugh, Jackie had confided that her husband did not want the divorce, and twice in the first ten days of polite, skittish cohabitation when her cellphone rang in front of Nina, Jackie had given her a look somewhere between irritation and chagrin, before disappearing upstairs with the call, her voice abruptly hushed to a placating tone.

Embarrassed by her curiosity but also incapable of suppressing it, Nina wondered what he was like, the photo she had found on the environmental-science department’s website revealing a handsome man who resembled Pierre with his blue eyes and a complexion that looked like it might burn easily, but Holden’s hair was darker and his nose and mouth a little smaller. Did he know about Pierre and Jackie? And if he did, did he also know that his estranged wife’s new landlord was Pierre’s widow?

Why had she stayed with Pierre, considering the frustrations and burdens and doubts he had visited on her in their two decades together? Friends had asked her this over the years, gentle but insistent, or with suppressed reproof that Nina thought might also bear traces of mockery.

Well, when they were happy, which wasn’t as infrequent as it might have seemed, they were very happy. He was smart, affectionate, playful. (And maybe she was addicted to the suspense, a therapist had suggested. “Suspense?” Nina had asked, bemused. The therapist nodded. “Yes, you want to see what he’ll do next.”)

But she had tried to leave him. Twice. The first time they were still living in Chicago and had been married for four years. A disagreement over the purchase of a new car that she didn’t think they needed turned into a week-long fight that wearied and infuriated her so much that she packed a bag, drove to a friend’s house, and stayed for three days. Pierre showed up with roses on the second and third, promising that things would be better if she returned, that he would be more frugal from here on out. A month later, to celebrate her graduation from nursing school and the new job she was about to begin, she let him buy the car, an Audi convertible, used, but still expensive and unnecessary. She had liked riding in it, and although he only let her drive it to work a few times a month—she had her own car, a humble Honda—she could see how happy it made him to own the Audi and this brought her pleasure, too.

“It’s classic codependency,” her friends told her, pitying or exasperated, but they weren’t really qualified to cast stones. Some were divorced and most had problems in their own relationships, no one seeming to have a clear idea how to stay contented for the long term. It seemed, however, that Nina’s parents were happy enough, though maybe because after forty-five years together, they had stopped expecting to feel passionately for each other. Her mother had once confided: “Your father and I respect and like each other very much. You can’t really hope for much beyond that, after a certain number of years. Infatuation and desire last maybe three or four years. That’s been my experience, at any rate.”

Her mother had intended to cheer her up, but this hardly seemed an enthusiastic endorsement of monogamy. Her mother was saying, whether she meant to or not, that no married couple could realistically expect something better than a devoted friendship after the first few years. Yet she and Pierre continued to have sex for most of their married lives, two or three times a week. Maybe it was because they hadn’t been distracted by childrearing, neither of them ever especially wanting kids. Or because he’d made overtures so frequently and was a good lover; she had rarely turned him down.

The second time it had been Pierre who left, Nina telling him to leave, this separation lasting for four weeks. He called almost daily until she let him move home again. They had fought over his mismanagement of ten thousand dollars that she had given him from the inheritance from her maternal grandmother, most of which she had insisted on putting into the purchase of their Berkeley home. He had put the ten thousand into merchandise: drivers and irons that were supposed to be indestructible but lightweight. When the shipment arrived from the Indonesian factory where they were manufactured, Pierre discovered that they were junk. Nina told him to return them and demand a refund, but Pierre shook his head dolefully. “I went through some unconventional channels with this transaction. There won’t be any refunds,” he said.

“Unconventional channels?” she’d said, her face burning. “What does that mean? Did they fall off a truck?”

“No, nothing like that.” He faltered, brushing hair from his eyes, though none was in the way. He was nervous and sweating. “The guy I ordered them from isn’t returning my calls.”

She stared at him, her stomach leaping violently. “Well, go find him.”

“His number’s disconnected. I don’t know where he lives, either. He’s probably back overseas by now.”

“Yes, with our money. Where do you meet these people?” she had almost yelled, tears rushing to her eyes.

“At the club, you know that,” he said. “They’re all golf fanatics. Where else would I meet them?”

The club. Pierre’s beloved second home. There had been several during their marriage—Pine Meadow before the Glenview Park District course, then the Wilmette Country Club, after which they moved to California where he had several acquaintances in the East Bay and Napa, and was hired at the Marin Country Club, where he earned a good living. He had claimed since their courtship that he didn’t want to be an instructor for the rest of his life. He had plans to be as rich as the men he was hired to instruct on their swing and grip, men who thought nothing of tipping thirty dollars on top of the hundred or more that they paid the club for an hour of his time.

His skills had not extended beyond the links, however, and it was in California, the last several years of his life, where his failures truly accumulated, the true extent of which he’d been able to hide from her until his death. She realized that he’d felt like an outsider—that he had worried he was doomed to be an employee of the country-club set rather than an equal. She didn’t think it was greed that had spurred him on as much as the desire to transcend his working-class upbringing, his parents’ small ranch house and undistinguished lives in a suburb of Louisville where his mother had worked until retirement in an elementary-school cafeteria, and his father, a Belgian immigrant and second-born son of dairy farmers, had been a machinist at a power plant. It had been his maternal grandfather who had loved golf and taught Pierre to play, not his parents, who were indifferent to it.

But the affair was different from his dead-end commercial investments. How could she excuse it?

She didn’t really know, but she had.

It was near the end of the third week of living with Jackie that Holden appeared at the front door, late on a Sunday afternoon and, as Nina soon learned, Jackie’s forty-first birthday. Jackie wasn’t home and hadn’t been since the morning. Holden rang the doorbell twice, only waiting a few seconds between each ring, and when Nina got to the door, she nearly flung it open in irritation, forgetting to glance first through the door’s porthole window to identify her harasser. She recognized Jackie’s husband immediately, her annoyance replaced by wariness. He did not look threatening, but he was big, over six feet tall, with a wide, muscular chest. He was more handsome in person than in his departmental photo, but he had dark circles under his eyes, and his gaze flitted nervously between her face and the rosebushes framing the front door.

She could smell woodsy cologne and a top note of perspiration on him, and his scent appealed to her. She hadn’t had sex since Pierre had died, and she wondered how long it had been since Holden had slept with someone. He held a mixed bouquet of brilliant pink and red flowers in one hand and a white gift-wrapped box in the other. She wondered again what Jackie’s reasons were for wanting a divorce. She hadn’t asked and Jackie hadn’t yet offered an explanation.

“Hi,” said Holden. “I’d shake your hand, but I guess you can see—”

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Is Jacqueline around?” He paused. “I’m her husband, Holden Henry.”

“Jacqueline’s been out all day. I’m not sure when she’s coming back.”

“Is it all right if I wait for her?”

She hesitated. “In the house?”

He smiled stiffly. “No, no. In my car. Do you know where she is?”

“I think she said she was going to yoga and then I’m not sure what she was doing. Maybe meeting someone for lunch?”

“It’s five-thirty,” he said morosely.

“Yes, I guess it is. I’m not sure where she is. You probably have her cell number?”

“Yes. I do. Nice to meet you,” he said, turning to go.

“Wait,” she said, her heart pounding. “I guess you could wait for her out on the patio or in the living room, if you’d prefer.”

To her relief, he shook his head. “My car’s fine. If she went to yoga, she probably went out with people she knows from the class. They must have taken her out for her birthday. God, I hope they didn’t go down to Santa Cruz like last time.”

“Could you call her?”

“No,” he said curtly. “She won’t pick up.”

When Jackie returned three hours later, a big white shopping bag in each hand, Holden was still out front in his car, reading or else pretending to read. From the window of the small room next to the kitchen where Nina had set up her desk and computer after Jackie moved in upstairs, she watched her housemate hesitate when she climbed out of her friend’s small green station wagon, knowing that she would not be able to slip by her husband and into the refuge of the house. The driver of the station wagon lingered by the curb until Jackie waved her on with an impatient gesture. The windows to Nina’s study were open and she could hear Jackie greet Holden warily when he emerged from his car and tried to hand her the gift-wrapped box and the flowers. She stood looking at the gifts, holding firm to the shopping bags.

“Happy birthday, Jacqueline,” said Holden. “Let me take you to dinner.”

“I already told you I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said.

His reply was too quiet for Nina to hear.

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea, either,” said Jackie.

“Were you in Santa Cruz?” he asked.

“No.”

“Where were you all day?”

“How do you know I was gone all day? When did you get here? I hope you weren’t pestering Nina.”

“I wasn’t. I haven’t been here very long.”

Nina couldn’t hear them after this because they walked around the side of the house and into the backyard where she guessed they would sit on the patio chairs until Jackie told him enough, he needed to leave and get on with his life.

But this wasn’t what she did. After a few minutes, Nina heard them come into the house and go upstairs to Jackie’s room. Another few minutes passed before she heard what she was sure were bedsprings squeaking, then a thump and a muffled moan. For several seconds, Nina stood immobile with disbelief and outrage and, it was there, irrefutably—jealousy. The gall of her new roommate to do this in the house of the woman whose husband she had once…

…whose kindness she had relied on to help release her from the husband it seemed she was now upstairs screwing!

But she paid rent, a lot of rent, and it was her birthday, and she was a grown woman who could have sex with whomever she wanted to. On top of that, her husband was clearly miserable with loneliness.

Still, did any of this matter in the rude, incredible present?

She didn’t know if she should scream in indignation or in alarm because—this was also possible—what if Holden was beating Jackie? Should she run upstairs and pound on her door to make sure that he was in fact fucking rather than strangling her?

Absurd. It was absurd that she had put herself in this situation at all. She should not have allowed Jackie to move in. Was it worth saving her beloved home if she couldn’t live in it with the same sense of ownership she’d had since purchasing it several years earlier? If her desperation to avoid more change and loss after Pierre’s death had forced her to believe that renting to her dead husband’s ex-mistress was a good idea?

She went out to the garage, got in her car, and drove over to Mary Jo’s house a mile and a half away, but there were no lights on in the front room and Nina didn’t have the heart to ring the doorbell into this quiet, conjugal darkness. Mary Jo was probably putting her son to bed, her devoted husband helping. Her other friends from work and the women she was friendly with at the gym where she attended her own occasional yoga classes and dutifully lifted weights twice a week to keep her bone density from slipping, were all doubtless busy with their own lives and families and restless pursuit of something more than work and childrearing.

Why wasn’t she selling or declaring bankruptcy?

Choosing the easiest path wasn’t the kind of thing she permitted herself to do, nor was she going to allow Pierre’s mistakes to further compromise her credit and savings. Although he might often have said, “It’s only money,” it wasn’t only money. It was independence and self-respect.

Had she stayed with him because she had always considered herself pretty but not beautiful, smart but not at all brilliant, not cowardly but not very brave, either? Or because she had known how it would be if ever Pierre left her? The dates with the two men she had met online since his death had gone exactly as she expected; they were boastful, but other than their ability to write funny, self-effacing emails, she wasn’t sure if they had a lot to brag about. They had talked about other women they had recently gone out with and had barely met her gaze when she spoke, and one had even expected her to go home with him. It would always be like this, she was certain. (“No, it won’t,” Mary Jo had assured her, as had Nina’s mother. “Just keep trying,” they’d counseled. But for how long would Nina want to keep trying? And then, even as she thought this, she realized how pathetic she was, as if Pierre’s death were anything extraordinary, as if dozens of women weren’t widowed every hour of every day, and wouldn’t some think it a blessing that he had died before he could wreak further havoc on her life?)

When she left Mary Jo’s house, aimlessly driving around the neighborhood for half an hour before returning to her own, Holden’s car was gone. The light was on upstairs in Jackie’s room, which Nina assumed meant that she hadn’t been murdered. She let herself in through the garage and met Jackie in the dark hallway between the kitchen and the living room. Her roommate was wearing a short white robe and had pinned up her hair. Nina hesitated, averting her eyes before returning them to Jackie’s face, which wore a look of apology.

“I’m so sorry about Holden. I made him promise that he wouldn’t come over here, but I think he thought that because it was my birthday, it would be okay.”

“It was fine. He didn’t bother me.”

“He’s very dependent on me, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. He doesn’t want me to have a social life. He can have as many friends as he wants and go out whenever he wants to, which, granted, isn’t that often, but, well—” She smiled sheepishly. “It was a big problem. He embarrassed me so many times in front of my friends when they’d come to the house. It felt like he was my father, not my husband. We tried counseling but it didn’t work. He’d be all right for a few weeks but then he’d relapse.” She paused. “He doesn’t know about Pierre. I never told him. It would only have made him more jealous whenever I left the house. I didn’t cheat on him. Pierre was the only married man I ever went out with.”

“We don’t have to talk about this,” Nina said softly.

“I just want you to know. It would make me feel better if you knew that when I found out he was married, I only saw him a few more times and then we ended it.”

“He wanted to end it, too?”

Jackie exhaled. “I don’t know if he did. Well, maybe. I’m not sure.”

“Did he tell you that I saw you two together at Marshall Field’s?”

Jackie stared at her. “No, he didn’t. That must have been pretty terrible for you.”

“It wasn’t my best moment.”

“He borrowed money from me. A thousand dollars. He paid it back, but then he asked for more and I said no. He was upset that I wouldn’t lend him more, and then I found out he was married and basically, it was over.”

“God, I think he must have borrowed money from everyone he knew. That’s what I’ve been finding out since he died.”

“He did have a lot of ideas. Good ones, I thought, but they were expensive.”

“Yes, they were. And none of them panned out.” Nina went into the kitchen, Jackie following. “I’m going to make some tea. Would you like some?”

“No, but thanks.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry again about Holden. I brought him upstairs because he said he was getting a migraine and he wanted me to rub his neck and shoulders. I used to do that for him and it would usually help avert the headache. We weren’t doing anything else up there, but I’m sure it sounded bad. He’s such a baby.”

Nina felt her face flush. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“No, I want to. But if I do bring someone home at some point, would you be okay with that?”

Nina hesitated. Jackie did have the right. Of course she did.

“If we’re discreet?” Jackie added.

“Yes, that’s fine. I’ll want to do the same.”

“Yes, I’m sure you will.”

Nina glanced up from the sink where she was filling the teapot. She looked over at Jackie who stood in the doorway, her face bare of make-up, her legs smooth and sleekly muscled. She knew that Jackie regretted the affair with Pierre and that she had gotten on with her life before wasting any more time on him. She was doing the same now with Holden. Nina was struck by the possibility that it might be an unseemly gift to have Jackie in her life again. She could learn from this other woman, who was graceful and sympathetic and seemed to know what she wanted.

Jackie held Nina’s gaze for several seconds, looking as if she might say something more, but she didn’t, only goodnight, before she turned to go back up to her room and leave Nina in the kitchen to wait for her tea and listen to a car passing on the street, its radio up too loud, the music the sound of someone in distress, and then, abruptly, the street was silent again.

About the Author

Christine Sneed is the author of a short-story collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and a novel, Little Known Facts, both published by Bloomsbury.




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.