Chapter One, from Interior Designs:
When I woke up, my thoughts sifted through my mind slowly, like pieces of a dream. I could feel the sun through the spaces in the blinds, and I gradually saw my surroundings—my pink and white floral Laura Ashley spread, the matching shams, and other assorted pillows—and that normally blissful feeling started to descend. And then something jarred me fully awake. I sat up slowly, and the heavy cloak of despair fell down around my shoulders. My now-familiar life began to take shape.
When had my world morphed into this despair that seemed to follow me into every waking moment?
Why did my sleep bring my only peace these days?
Just as the self-pity threatened to turn my day gray, I jumped out of bed and headed for the shower. No time for dark thoughts. I still had a daughter to care for and a business to run. Nothing could turn my world completely upside down—just because I’d been abandoned by the man I’d thought would be mine forever….
Stop those thoughts, I told myself, and tried to find something positive in the beautiful surroundings. Usually I found serenity in the carefully constructed world I had designed for myself, just as I did for my clients every day of my life; today would be no different. My gaze swept the room, noting with satisfaction that everything seemed orderly. I was one of those housewives—oops, wrong term these days!—who joyfully cleaned and restored order, if only to bring back the original design I had envisioned.
When things are askew, nothing looks beautiful….Were those my mother’s words?
I laughed, hoping the sound would remind me that my life wasn’t over.
In the shower, I allowed myself to enjoy the hot pulsating massage of the water, feeling the steam gradually taking away the cloak of despair, while my mind slowly filled up with thoughts of the beauty I could create in the world around me.
Someone had told me once, a long time ago, that pleasing visual images could do wonders for the mood.
I had barely finished my shower, wrapping myself in the luxurious toweling robe, when ten-year-old Meadow’s voice outside my room brought me back to reality. “Mommy, where’s my blue sweater? You knew I wanted to wear it today!”
Was that an accusatory tone in her sweet voice? When had she turned so shrill?
“It’s in your armoire,” I called out in what I hoped was a cheerful tone. “Just a minute and I’ll help you look.”
A few moments later, we had uncovered the missing sweater, settled Meadow’s backpack and other school supplies on her shoulder, and descended the stairs together.
Normally I was in the kitchen ahead of her, but lately, my days seemed to force their own mold around me.
My coffee had trickled its last drops into the pot and the aroma guided me toward the room. Turning on lights, I looked around, as if to mentally review my surroundings, and thus my life. I loved this room, which had been the center of my world for many years. Okay, so it had lost some of its luster, but I could change that. Wasn’t I the Domestic Diva? I chuckled to myself, my mood almost restored by my rediscovered sense of humor, and briskly put together Meadow’s breakfast.
She turned on the little kitchen TV to watch a show she now loved, something about preteen girls; the familiar sounds of the girls laughing and talking felt like a backdrop to a play that was unfolding around me.
By the time I served up scrambled eggs, toast, and orange juice, Meadow had seated herself, her backpack slung across her chair, and she barely even looked at her plate as she ate.
I took the opportunity to sip my coffee standing up, and gazed out at the beautiful yard, noting the first signs of spring announcing their presence, almost as if they knew I needed something to remind me that life began anew.
Before I could fall into my usual reverie about the tasks ahead of me in the day, Meadow stood up, grabbed her backpack, and headed toward the front door. These days, she walked to the end of the block with the girl next door, where a bus would take them to the school just a few miles away.
Hugging her, I watched as she skipped to Jolene’s house. When her friend joined her, and they trotted down the street to the corner, I still stood there—almost as if this safe street had morphed into something dark and malevolent. Finally, just to make myself feel more normal, I sat in the wicker chair on the porch, my coffee cup in hand, and waited the five minutes until the bus appeared. Only then did I return to my morning routines.
By nine o’clock, the phone began ringing. I had booted up the computer and gone through a few designs, followed by my usual perusal of my task schedule for the day. My assistant, Caroline, had set it up for me a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed how orderly it all seemed. She arrived daily around 8:30, and now buzzed around my office space without intruding. Her own little niche was the adjacent space that had once been Hal’s.
Don’t even go there, I reminded myself. At least I’d totally redesigned that space, as if to eradicate any trace of him. Now the room was efficiently arranged, but with feminine touches. I had elicited Caroline’s thoughts on the plans; it would be where she spent her days, so she might as well feel comfortable.
Her tastes were more minimal than mine: sleek lines in gray, black, and touches of red.
She stopped in front of my desk abruptly now, and I tore myself away from my thoughts to ask her what she needed. “It’s this client,” she began, pointing to the name on the message slip. “I thought we finished with him…so why is he calling again? Do you think he has a problem?”
I felt the blush tingeing my cheeks, even as I struggled to remain business-like. “Oh, don’t worry about that one. I’ll handle it personally. And no, I don’t think there’s a problem.”
Caroline studied me curiously, but then nodded and moved back into her space.
Long after she’d exited the room, though, my thoughts tumbled backward to the months when I’d worked with Zachary Lowenstein, redecorating his condo. What had begun as a professional relationship had quickly changed into something more….
But I had no time to waste on those memories. Even though I’d known the relationship would end, and I hadn’t actually felt that sad about it, sometimes a pang would hit me. Like another stab of betrayal—which was totally out of line, since I had known from the beginning that the relationship was temporary. Hadn’t I?
Shaking my head at how my own crazy expectations had derailed me, time and time again, I focused sternly on the tasks ahead—answering phone calls, checking things off the list, and making changes on some of my sketches. Sometimes my work demanded very little from me. After all these years, my work flowed smoothly, even though the rest of my life was a total mess.
When my mother called later in the afternoon, touching base about our dinner plans, I tried to sound perky. I knew she expected that of me, since all my life she’d been like my cheerleader. How could I disappoint her by showing sadness, depression, or even just being out of sorts? I had learned very early to hide my feelings.
So it didn’t take much effort to do it again, as we agreed on the time, and then gabbed for a few minutes about Meadow, about my father’s golf game, and about their vacation plans. They were going on a cruise, which was nothing new for the two of them.
James and Marie Scott were perfectly matched: well-groomed, good looking, and energetic. Nobody would have guessed their true ages, early fifties, since they worked hard to maintain the youthful façade. They had been high school sweethearts, caught out with an unplanned pregnancy in their senior year. They had married almost immediately, so unless their friends were counting, it all looked totally planned.
All these years later, they were still together, though their parents and friends had secretly anticipated an early demise to the relationship. In fact, they’d had two more children…boys.
I seldom saw my brothers, who had moved on after college. Gregory, who was thirty-two, lived in New York, while Jonathan, who had recently turned thirty, lived in Boston. Both were married, but Gregory and his wife had no children. Jonathan had one child.
Why was I wandering down memory lane while my mother chatted? Oh, yes, because I had zoned out on the conversation minutes ago. Embarrassed, I jumped into a momentary gap in my mother’s chat: “Hey, Mom, I’m looking forward to it, but I really have to finish up a few things. So…see you later?”
“Oh, of course, dear,” Marie laughed. “I do go on and on, don’t I? See you soon….”
I sighed, and then put my head down on the desk for a moment. Closing my eyes felt so good after a long day of dealing with visual images.
Moments later, I was asleep.
My dreams took me along a quiet country road. My parents were in the front seat of their old Pontiac, driving and chatting. They always seemed to be talking about something that only they could understand. Greg and Jon sat on either side of me in the back seat, pushing and shoving, with me sandwiched in the middle. But I knew better than to complain. Nobody dared interrupt my parents when they were deep in conversation.
But then one of Jon’s jabs hit me hard in the stomach and I cried out.
I noticed my mother’s frown, even before she quickly turned into the parent who smiled and took care of me. But the momentary annoyance I saw there reminded me of how I should behave. “I’m sorry, Mommy,” I quickly spoke. “It was an accident.”
She stared at each of the boys, giving them that look that she reserved just for them, and then smiled at me again. “Okay, then, sweetie. We’ll be home soon. Then you can work off some of that energy.”
I could hardly wait, and soon, sure enough, we were pulling into the driveway.
Running into the house and up the stairs to my room, I settled into my window seat and curled up with a tablet of blank pages for drawing. I tried to turn my thoughts and frustrations into pictures I could later give to my mother. Then she would remember that I was the good girl and not the one who complained.
“Martha!” The voice intruded on my dream life, and I lifted my head, feeling foggy and disoriented. Where had I gone? Caroline was staring at me with that look of concern that everyone seemed to wear these days.
“Oh, I guess I must have needed my power nap,” I laughed, trying to pretend that everyone took a nap halfway through the afternoon. “What’s going on? More client calls?”
“No, I was just going to ask if you needed anything else before I leave.” She seemed apologetic, so of course I quickly reassured her.
Well, I thought, after she’d gone, it must be almost time for Meadow to arrive home.
I hastened into the adjacent bathroom, checking the mirror for any telltale signs. My hair was tousled and a deep pink crease divided the left side of my face. Great, I thought gloomily. But I splashed cold water on my face, tried to smooth out the marks, and ran the brush through my hair. After applying a touch of makeup, I straightened my slightly rumpled outfit.
As I scurried out of the office wing and toward the front of the house, I tried to remember what I was fixing for dinner, but then recalled that we were dining with my parents. Relieved, I opened the fridge and grabbed a water bottle. I sat at the kitchen table, sipping it as if I were parched. Feeling somewhat better, I glanced at the kitchen clock, noticing the time, and headed toward the front porch. I grabbed a book from the coffee table in the living room just before I opened the door.
Settled in the wicker chair, a water bottle on the table and a book in hand, I waited.
As if I had resumed the earlier dream, I began recalling moments in my childhood—memories of car trips, squabbling kids, and the detached cocoon that seemingly surrounded our parents. Why had I never thought of them in that way before, like two celebrities, while the rest of us were just along for the ride in their wonderful life?
It wasn’t as though they ignored us, really; they just had better things to do than to connect with us. Maybe that’s how parenting was back in those days. But why was I invalidating my own experience? And what did it mean? I knew that my parents adored me. That had always been my belief, anyway, so why did I suddenly feel extraneous?
I thought about our earlier conversation, with my mother chatting away about what she and Dad were doing—their golf games, their cruises—and everything about the two of them. Had she even asked me how I was doing? Did she care?
Maybe I was in the wrong here. Wasn’t I a grownup, able to chart my own course? In fact, hadn’t I always told them not to worry?
Just as I felt the beginning panic that sometimes overcame me, I saw Meadow walking briskly toward me. Alone. Where was Jolene? Now I was really worried and called out: “Why are you walking by yourself?”
“It’s okay, Mommy,” she replied quickly. “Jolene had to stay after school today…but I could see you sitting there. Don’t worry,” and she reached out to pat my arm, as if she were the nurturer in this situation.
I decided to let it go, but thought carefully about my current arrangements. Maybe I should be driving Meadow to and from school. Even though we lived in a wonderful neighborhood and the bus stopped only a block away, one could never be too careful.
Where was her father when she needed him?
And then I realized how much of an overreaction that was, and quietly walked into the house, locking the door behind us.
We arrived at my parents’ home around six o’clock, just in time for cocktails. Cocktail hour had been a part of their household routine ever since I could remember. Even though most people nowadays didn’t necessarily cling to such a ritual, James and Marie Scott stuck to it almost as if their lives depended upon it. But I didn’t think either of them had a drinking problem. They had their martinis, or sometimes my mother sipped a glass of sherry; they always had wine with dinner. When I thought about it like that, though, I realized that quite a number of drinks were consumed every day.
And when Hal and I had been married, we’d pretty much followed this same pattern.
I wonder what he and Amber do these days, I pondered idly, but then I caught my mother looking at me strangely. I tossed my hair defensively and met her gaze. “Why are you looking at me like that?” As soon as I said the words, I knew how I sounded and realized—again!—that I was behaving out of character. The good girl would not do any of the things I’d done lately.
Including having that tryst with Zach Lowenstein. With those thoughts, I could feel a blush flooding my cheeks, just as my mother decided to reply to my demanding remark. “I just thought you might be worried about something.” She shrugged, stood up, and gestured. “Dinner is served.” And she led the way into the dining room, where Ramona was just dishing up the meal.
As usual, everything looked marvelous. I decided to relax and pretend to enjoy myself.
Later that evening, after I’d tucked Meadow into bed, and once I’d made sure everything was in order downstairs, I curled up in my bed with a book. I glanced around surreptitiously, as if to reassure myself that my world was intact—as much as it could be, anyway. Over there was my favorite spot, the window seat, reminiscent of the one I used to adore as a child in my parents’ home. Mine now was more luxurious, with its bevy of needlepoint pillows tucked decoratively along the pale rose-colored cushioned seat. The windows looked out onto the backyard, another one of my favorite places.
My bed, with its pink and white floral Laura Ashley spread, shams, and assorted coordinating pillows felt like a queen’s throne.
So why did it seem as though the fairytale had ended? Just because the prince had dashed off on his white charger to rescue another damsel didn’t mean that I was the wicked queen in this piece. And maybe Hal wasn’t really a prince after all.
Which made me think of Zach again…I hadn’t called him back, but I’d tucked the pink message slip into my datebook.
My thoughts veered backwards in time to the moments, in the seemingly distant past, when I’d first realized that Hal was betraying me. A mysterious e-mail message from that horrible girl Miranda Templeton had triggered the downward spiral for me. My behavior had been less than stellar back then, and months later, when I’d realized how I had created that whole nefarious dark side, it was too late. I couldn’t turn back the clock, but I could certainly change how I reacted nowadays. I had to set a better example for my daughter.
Sighing, I tossed the book aside. Traipsing down memory lane seemed to be the order of tonight’s business. I could feel the pain all over again, even though I’d vowed to put it all behind me. Actually, when I compared my marriage to Hal to the newer relationship with Zach—even though that hadn’t actually been a real relationship, but more of a liaison—I realized once again that Hal and I had lost our connection a long time ago.
What had happened between him and Amber had almost been inevitable.
So why did I still feel the sting of betrayal? I wasn’t exactly suffering here. In the months before our divorce had actually happened, I had been busily squirreling away funds in separate accounts, just in case. And when we’d actually sat down to divide up the assets, Hal, in his eagerness to sever our ties so he could move on, had been very generous.
I would not be suffering like other abandoned wives, trying to make ends meet. I had retained the beautiful family home, a vacation home at Shaver Lake, some stocks, and a substantial trust for Meadow. So my feelings were really more about my wounded ego.
I likened the feeling to the one I’d grabbed onto earlier—that image of my parents in their own little world, cocooned, while I sat somewhere on the outside. Left out, excluded.
Was that a normal feeling? Or was I behaving badly again?
Frustrated, I picked up the book and tried to read.
For several days, I kept so busy that I had no time for introspective thoughts.
Or was I simply avoiding them? I finally did call Zach, closing my eyes while I waited for his voice on the other end of the phone. But I got his voice mail. I hesitated and then decided to go ahead and leave a message. It could be about business. So I carefully spoke, trying to keep anything personal out of my tone. “Hi, Zach, I hope you’re enjoying the condo. Call me when you can.”
Afterwards, I thought that maybe I had sounded a bit seductive, but that could be my imagination.
Once I’d completed the call, my thoughts did veer along memory pathways again. I thought about the last time I’d seen Hal before the marriage had officially ended, when we were working out the settlement between us. That had been more than a year ago. I had known that he and Amber were planning their marriage and had moved to Sausalito. They had kept the beach house in Santa Cruz, which I was happy about. That place conjured up thoughts of a lovers’ retreat, and I would not have been happy there.
By then I’d also realized that Hal and Amber had first met in the Shaver Lake cabin, but I’d also known that they had only gone there together the one time. It wouldn’t be filled with the ghosts of their love affair—not like the beach house.
I laughed suddenly, thinking that I could fumigate the cabin to remove all traces of them.
Just then, Caroline poked her head into my office with a questioning look on her face. “Did you say something?”
“Oh, sorry about that,” I smiled. “I was just thinking one of my crazy thoughts.” I didn’t explain further, but I knew that Caroline might actually get a kick out of my humorous idea. So I almost told her, but then decided against it. Staying businesslike was probably the best way to go.
We talked about a few of my upcoming projects and then called it a day.
By the weekend, I was completely ready to do something fun. But when had I last had fun? I had tried to throw a New Year’s Eve party a few months ago, just to mark the beginning of the New Millennium and to spotlight my new incarnation. It hadn’t been a fiasco, or anything; in fact all the guests seemed perfectly happy to celebrate with me, even without Hal. Our mutual friends hadn’t had to choose sides, as so often happened in divorce. With Hal living in another town, with a new business, there was no reason for awkwardness.
I had looked around at the conviviality, satisfied that my Domestic Diva title remained secure, and congratulated myself a bit, even as I felt that empty place inside crying out for something that was missing.
Was it just a co-host that I lacked? Or was my crown slightly tarnished now?
I had never been one of those women who could do things alone. Many women did go to the movies alone, or even lunch, carrying along a book for companionship. But I hadn’t been able to do that. Sure, I could call any number of acquaintances to meet for lunch or the movies, but I hesitated. Did I believe that they all secretly pitied me, and was that what held me back? Or was it something more?
When I was being completely honest with myself, something I was hoping to achieve, I had to acknowledge that I didn’t have any real friends. Acquaintances would be a better description.
Was this something that I could change? And if that was the case, what did I need to do to transform my life?