“Will you think about it?”
“Yes, I said I would.” Karen heard the strain in her voice.
Fearing that she had also been too loud, she glanced worriedly toward the stairs. She didn’t want to wake the kids. The last thing she needed was to have one of them come wandering out and with sleepy eyes, spot Kaden’s football coach sneaking out of their house while it was still dark outside.
“I think it’s an important step, Karen,” Vic said. “For all of us.”
“The kids …”
“I meant them too,” he said, his eyes holding hers. “It’s time.”
“Okay. We’ll talk again later. But for now you have to …”
“I know,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Leave before they see me.”
Karen sighed and leaned in, hoping the quick kiss would placate him. At least for the moment.
Across her lawn, behind her neighbor’s house across the street, and in the horizon, she could see the pinkish-orange splashes across the sky. The sun was almost up, and with it, Jasmin and Kaden.
Since they were on Winter Break they seemed to have no trouble getting out of bed in the morning; unlike school days when she practically had to drag them from beneath the covers.
Karen watched as Vic made his way down her long driveway and toward his car. He’d parked on the street, the way he always did, because Karen was paranoid about her neighbors or the kids seeing a strange car in the driveway in the middle of the night. The neighbors wouldn’t care. Or if they did, they would probably cheer for her. Her kids, she wasn’t so sure about.
Vic reached his car and turned to give her a brief wave before getting in and pulling away. She heaved a sigh of both relief and resignation. Watching him leave was hard, and getting harder. But what else was she supposed to do?
He’s fed-up, Karen, the little voice in her head warned. He’s going to leave you.
Shoving it aside, Karen shut the door and leaned against it for a few moments before taking another breath and heading into the kitchen. She would make herself a cup of chai before attending to the kids’ breakfast. Putting on the tea kettle, she reached for her iPad and checked her schedule. There was very little on it—a hair appointment, a manicure, lunch with Priss and Amy, and then shopping with the kids. They still had to get presents. For their cousins, their aunt and uncle and their grandparents. And of course, for their siblings.
The ones for their brothers and sister were harder, because Karen didn’t really know Chris’ other kids. That made it difficult to overrule the choices Jasmin and Kaden made. Deuce was in college now—a sophomore, a junior? Karen couldn’t remember. And the babies, Caitlyn and Landyn were both under four. But mothers were strange sometimes; they had all these rules about what they wanted or didn’t want to their kids to play with. And though Robyn didn’t strike Karen as being that kind of a stickler, one never knew.
Everything to do with Chris’ wife caused Karen to feel a low-level hum of anxiety. She didn’t want to offend, nor to commit some kind of faux pas. But no matter what she did, she couldn’t help but feel that she might never measure up. Not that Robyn had ever given her any reason to feel that way. It was just that damned voice in her head, the one that Vic was always telling her was a liar.
If it tells you you’re not beautiful, it’s lying, he said one night as he kissed her shoulder. If it tells you you’re not an amazing mother, friend … it’s lying.
Vic was so sensitive, so understanding in that way. He didn’t get impatient with her insecurities, or find them to be a turn-off the way Chris had. Instead, he soothed them away.
When they were together, Chris loathed the way she put herself down, the way she assumed, with no evidence whatsoever, that just about everyone was smarter, more consequential, more … everything than she was. It was one of many things that made them a mismatch probably. The fact that Chris knew, or at least had learned how to project the impression that he was better than most people at most things; that he was way ahead of everyone else. She had admired, and envied that about him. Maybe the admiration had been too much, and had turned to simpering, and that was what made him leave her.
But what did it matter now? That part of her life was long done with. Chris was happily married and she was with Vic. So why was it she couldn’t stop thinking about it? It had been years, but she still thought about it almost every day—what she might have done differently so that Chris would have stayed.
What made it harder to turn that question off was his larger-than-life image which seemed to follow her, no matter where she went. Even Priss and Amy never tired of probing about her past relationship, now almost ten years dead.
So … what was he like? Amy had once asked, a twinkle in her eyes.
And when Karen looked confused at the question she’d asked it again, this time with a different inflection.
I mean, you know, what was he like?
And that was when Karen realized she meant sexually. What had Chris been like sexually? It was the most frequent area of curiosity for women up here in staid Bronxville with their controlled glamor, and New York-lite fashions.
I wouldn’t even know how to answer a question like that, Karen had laughed.
Answer it truthfully, Amy suggested. Was he, like, really … wild and rough?
Karen smiled at her friend. No more so than any other man, I guess.
Amy looked disappointed. Karen couldn’t figure out whether her disappointment was that Chris wouldn’t live up to her Mandingo fantasies, or that Karen was disinclined to share that he had.
Amy and Priss weren’t even properly classified as ‘friends’. They were the mothers of her kids’ friends; women she was repeatedly thrown together with during all those enforced socials associated with various teams, committees and neighborhood associations. Amy used to have a career as a gallery manager until she had her third kid; and Priss, whose real name was Priscilla (swear to God) was a jewelry-maker in SoHo until she met her hedge fund manager husband. It was easier to hang out with Amy and Priss than some of the other mothers because Karen secretly didn’t think ‘gallery manager’ and ‘jewelry maker’ were real careers.
Some of the other mothers, though they were now stay-at-homes like Karen, Amy and Priss used to be lawyers, venture capital consultants, compliance officers. Those women formed their own little tribe, and clustered together at socials, talking about things like President Obama’s energy policy or whether or not Hillary Clinton would have made a good president (‘I mean gender aside,’ Karen heard one mother say, ‘What did she really bring to the table other than that she wasn’t the other guy?’). Karen wouldn’t have had any idea how to contribute to that conversation. She hadn’t even registered to vote.
She met Vic at one of those events. It was a celebratory dinner for Kaden’s football team and Vic had stopped in because he was a local celebrity. He used to play for the Giants until an injury forced him into broadcasting instead. Now he was on ESPN as a commentator. Karen hadn’t even known that his kids went to Kaden and Jasmin’s school. But truth be told, even if she had known, she wasn’t sure she would have recognized his name.
When he’d walked into the restaurant for the team dinner, Karen noted how all the other mothers had straightened up in their seats, some of them flipping their hair, or jutting their chins and chests forward. All the boys on the team had oohed and aahed. Some of them, including Kaden, shoved back from their seats to rush him. Vic had smiled and taken it in stride, high-fiving some of them, shaking the hands of others, and beaming at them all.
Vic Elliot, someone whispered into Karen’s ear. His son doesn’t play anymore, but he promised to stop by as a special surprise.
Vic was handsome, tall and still had the build of a pro athlete. Karen found it hard to look him directly in the eye when introduced. When she got home later that evening and Kaden and Jasmin were in bed, she Googled him. He had retired from the NFL four years prior and had two kids with his ex-wife, a former Miss New York. Vic had custody, and his divorce had been messy and public. His children were almost the exact same age as Jasmin and Kaden—a boy one year younger than Jasmin, and a girl, one year older than Kaden.
There were lots of pictures of Vic online. Enough to convince Karen that a crush on him was pointless and unwise. That was all she needed. Even if he was by some remote possibility to become interested in her, there was no way she was subjecting herself to being involved with a high-profile man who had been married to a beauty queen, and also dated models. Oh no. Never again. Her self-esteem wasn’t nearly durable enough for that.
Karen took the whistling kettle off the stove and poured it over her teabag. She took a deep breath, reveling in the aroma of the chai for a few moments before adding sweetener and cream. Just as she did, the phone rang. She reached for it, grabbing it out of the cradle before the second ring to avoid having it wake the kids.
“Hey,” the voice on the other end said. He still had the power to make her heart race.
Karen wasn’t sure why that was, since she was no longer in love’with Chris. But there was part of her, still, that wanted his approval and always felt as though she was falling just a few steps short of ever having it.
“You’re calling early,” she said. “Everything okay?”
“Just trying to get some things straight for the holidays. You said you’re bringing the kids over tomorrow, right?”
“Yes,” Karen confirmed. “Or you could send your driver. Just because the traffic this time of year will be awful. I’d like to avoid driving too far.”
That was a lie. She wasn’t worried about traffic. She just hated pulling up to that house—the house where she used to live—and letting her kids out of the car, usually running because they were so eager to see their younger brother and sister. And this time, since Deuce would be home, there was that as well. Kaden would be jumping up and down in his seat, just dying to leave his boring old mother behind and spend time with the older brother he practically worshipped. Karen swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. It used to be that Christmas was hers and and the kids’ alone.
Back then, she had yearned for Chris to pay more attention to their children. Had prayed for it in fact. Now that he had made a family with someone else, he wanted Jasmin and Kaden with him as much as possible. Karen was grateful for that, because they adored their father, but it also broke her heart just the tiniest bit as well. They had been absorbed into a large, mysterious new family system that didn’t include her.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Chris said right away. “I’ll have Rick come get them. What time you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe around three or so?”
“Cool. And what time do you need them back?”
Hesitating, Karen thought about what Vic said. They could spend Christmas together, just the two of them, if she was willing to let her kids go stay with their father.
We’d take them out Christmas Eve, both of us together, he suggested. Your kids and mine. Let them know we’re together, and then maybe, if you’re comfortable with it, you’d explain to yours that they’re spending the holiday with their Dad for a change.
At first Karen had resented the suggestion. Who was he to tell her she should ship her children off for the most important holiday of the year? But that wasn’t his motive. His kids were going to be with their mother, and he would be alone as well. It would give them some time to plan for the future, think about whether they wanted a future that included the other.
You’re not just their mom, Karen, he said. You’re my woman, too. They have a father. You don’t have to hold them so close. It’s time to give yourself and them, a little more rope. Let go a little.
She’d promised him she would think about it. She did want Jasmin and Kaden to know about Vic. At first, she concealed it because of the awkwardness of it all. Vic had started coaching the team. That was how they’d started—Karen and Vic exchanging glances during games, and then finally, he invited her out for a drink, and then dinner. It had been a slow courtship because both their lives were largely about their kids. Well, her life was about her kids and his was about his kids and his demanding job. But he hung in there with her. Even when they first spent the night together and she’d snuck him out the back door like a fugitive. And even though that arrangement had been going on for months now, with her showing no inclination whatsoever to change it.
Then last night, he insisted.
I want to think about what a life together someday might be like. But … with things like they are… I need you to tell your kids. I need us to spend real, couple time together.
“Karen?” Chris prompted. “What time do you need them back tomorrow evening? I want to make sure they get a chance to see Deuce before they go home.”
God, he was different. Trying to arrange things with his children in mind was definitely not the guy he used to be. But more likely, he was acting on instructions from Robyn.
“I’m … I was thinking that … I was considering whether you might want to … you know, to keep them for Christmas,” Karen said. Her heart was pounding, just saying the words, never mind considering actually following through with them.
Chris said nothing for what felt like a really long time. Finally, he took a breath. “You sure?” he asked.
“No,” Karen said, with a sound that was half-laugh, half-sob.
“Everything okay?” Chris asked after a few more beats. He never did know how to handle it when she got emotional; had never understood nor connected with any of her feelings as a matter of fact.
“No. I mean, yes.”
“Which is it? No, or yes?” He sounded mildly impatient.
That was another thing he never had much comprehension of: how women could simultaneously hold two completely opposing impulses, and feel both with equal conviction.
“It’s just … I … I have … I’m with someone,” she began. “And …”
“And he doesn’t want the kids around?” Chris asked, his voice rising. “Is that it?”
“No, no, it’s not that. He has kids as well. They’re going to be away. He wants us to spend Christmas Eve morning with all the kids and then he and I would spend Christmas Day together. He thinks I need to …”
“Do what you want to do, Karen. Don’t let some dude …”
“He’s not like that,” she said sharply. “He just thinks I need to give the kids some breathing room, give you a chance to spend the holiday with them. And give us a chance to see where we could take things, y’know, with our relationship.”
Once again, Chris remained silent for a long while. “I don’t know what to tell you. Other than, I would love to have them for Christmas. And Robyn would love to have them. So whatever you decide … that’ll be fine with us.”
Now, Chris was speaking in terms of an ‘us’. He was in love with his wife. Like truly, deeply and completely in love with her. Karen sighed quietly. She had to stop letting that surprise her the way it did. She had to stop letting it sting the way it did. He had never loved her that way. Maybe he had never loved her at all.
“So I’ll decide and let you know,” she said, trying to pull herself together.
“Yeah, okay. I’ll send Rick for them tomorrow around three and if you plan to let them stay, send them with their bags and we’ll talk later about when you want them to come back. Sound good?”
“Sure,” she said. “Sounds like a plan. Bye Chris.”
“Yeah, bye. But Karen?”
“If he’s a good guy, maybe you should let yourself have that. Y’know what I mean? Our kids are going to be okay.”
Our kids. Sometimes, though they lived with her, and she was their primary caregiver, it felt like she was raising his kids. That sense was only heightened because of the money he deposited into her account each month. It was a sum most people with full-time employment would love to see; but each time Karen saw it, it made her feel small.
Because it was way more than a court would have mandated for child support – it was enough for nice clothes, not just for the children, but her as well; and for lunches out every week, and for trips, dinners, spa days. It felt like too much, and sometimes made her ashamed because within months of meeting Chris all those years ago, she had never worked another day. To alleviate the guilt, Karen gave some of the money away to her siblings and parents, and saved some for the kids in accounts they would have access to when they were in college.
“They’ll be okay.” Chris said again. “Other than missing you like hell on Christmas morning.”
Karen smiled. That was something she always forgot about him—occasionally, he knew precisely what a woman needed to hear.
“Baby. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Vic kept saying. “Maybe you just weren’t ready. I shouldn’t have pushed you to do this.”
“No, you were right,” Karen said, wiping her nose. “It is time. I mean, how ridiculous am I? Standing here crying because my kids just left to go have an amazing time with their father? I should be happy, right?”
Vic put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against him, and when Karen lifted her chin, she saw that he looked uncertain about whether to believe her. Unsure of whether he had done the right thing by insisting on this.
Jasmin and Kaden had been a little quiet and standfoffish at first with Vic’s two kids, but neither of them seemed to take issue with the fact that Vic was their mother’s new ‘boyfriend’. In fact, Kaden seemed to think it was pretty cool, having a pro football player—and his coach!—become such a huge part of his life.
Vic and Karen had taken the kids to brunch at First Watch, then they went to the mall together to do some last-minute shopping. After a little while, Jasmin and Vic’s daughter Sarah had peeled off on their own to look at clothes in a tween clothing store. Kaden and Vic’s son Vic, Jr. had less to say to each other.
See? Vic said as they walked together hand-in-hand. It’s fine. They’re fine.
And they were. And she was as well. Until Rick showed up to get them in the black Lincoln with the darly-tinted windows that Chris had his driver use whenever he was chauffeuring family members. Jasmin and Kaden piled in. Carrying with them favorite pillows, luggage and the mountain of gifts that they’d bought for everyone, they barely spared her a backward glance. As they pulled away, Karen waved energetically from the front door, and when they were out of sight, burst into noisy tears.
Vic, who had been discreetly waiting inside for her to say her goodbyes came out to get her, and now was comforting her while they sat together on the sofa.
Karen wiped her nose again and braved a smile.
“So now it’s just you and me,” she said, trying to sound bright. “What’re we going to do with all this time?”
Vic grinned at her and she blushed. He was a voracious lover, and made Karen feel for the first time in her life like she might really, truly let herself enjoy it. When she was younger, before she had her kids, she used to find that difficult. It felt good, but there was always a part of her that was self-conscious about the sounds she made, the exposure of her whole, naked self, and of the noisiness of her orgasms. With Vic, she sometimes cried when she came and he held her, and kissed her as though her tears were the most natural thing in the world.
Let go, Vic would say, his breath whispering against her ear. Just let go.
She wasn’t quite sure she was there yet, but maybe with him, she finally could.
Later, when they were in her bed, Vic with his head thrown back, not quite snoring but breathing heavily, she lay wide awake and staring at him, studying him—the lines and planes of his square jaw, the broad but high-bridged nose, the thick, well-formed lips and the solid musculature of his neck. This was her man, if she wanted him. If she could just allow herself to believe it.
The phone rang, interrupting her scrutiny. Taking a breath, she picked up. Next to her, Vic rolled onto his stomach.
“Hello?” she said, her voice low.
She sat up. Oh no. Why her? And why now? Just when she was beginning to think about feeling comfortable in her own skin.
“Robyn. Hi!” Her voice sounded falsely perky.
“Hi. So, the kids got here okay. And don’t worry, everything’s fine. But I had a thought.”
“Yes. Chris told me why you were sending them over for the holidays, and …”
“I didn’t mean to impose,” Karen said hastily. “I know it’s last-minute and …”
“No, no, it’s not that,” Robyn said. “It’s just that he also told me a little bit about why you wanted them to stay. And so I wondered …”
“We already have a full house for Christmas dinner and Chris said you’ve never not had Christmas with the kids, so if you and your friend, if you didn’t have other plans for dinner … Did you both want to stop by here?”
Karen pulled the sheet up to cover her bare chest. How unthreatening Robyn must find her, to make such an invitation?
Stop it, Karen!
“I … I’d love to but …”
“I mean, before I could say, I would have to ask Vic. Maybe he’s already made plans for us.”
“And if he has, don’t change them on my behalf,” Robyn said. “But I thought of you when I saw Jasmin and Kaden come charging in. And how you probably miss them already. So … anyway. Only if you want, but the invitation is an open one. We have dinner early, like around two. So please come. If you’d like.”
Karen thought of Chris’ friends—Brendan and Tracy, Riley and Shawn, Robyn’s family, Jamal Turner and his fiancée. They were all nice enough, but they were Chris’ and Robyn’s friends. That was their life, and she had a chance now to rebuild her own. She didn’t need Robyn to feel sorry for her, and glancing over at Vic, she realized she didn’t need to feel sorry for herself either.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice a little stronger now. “That’s really nice of you, but on second thought, I think it’ll be good for the kids to be with you and their father. So I’m going to decline.”