I am in a safe place now. I’ll explain later how I got here. But for now, let me try to catch you up on the madness of my recent life.
Shortly after I got Zulya’s address, I went to Boston for a business meeting. I’d told Charlie I was spending two nights there, but I found myself unable to focus and I ended up heading back the next day. As the train clacked back to New York, I refrained from calling to tell him about my change in plans. I made up all sorts of reasons — I didn’t want to disturb him. My cell phone was low on minutes. I might stop for food and couldn’t give a reliable ETA. Of course none of them was the real reason. But why should I have to make excuses to him? Wasn’t he the one who had to account for his behavior?
It was almost eleven when I opened the door to my apartment. The TV was on in the living room and in its glow, Lucia stirred from the bed she’d made on our couch. “Oh, Adrienne. I fell asleep!” She sat up, rubbing the side of her head. “Your meeting is cancelled?”
“I had to come back for something. Where’s Charlie?”
“He asked me to stay. Some customer needs him right away.”
“What time is he coming back?”
“He doesn’t know. Maybe not today.”
This was it then. The room began to pulsate.
Lucia stood up and switched on a floor lamp by the couch. “You are not well.”
“I’m fine.” Suddenly I felt the weight of my laptop and overnight bag on my shoulders. I let them drop.
“Sit down.” Lucia came to me and put her hand on my cheek. “I’ll make you some soup.”
She was still clucking and fussing as I pushed her out the door.
And hardly ten minutes passed before I realized my error. In my mind’s eye, I’d seen myself bursting in on Charlie and Zulya half-naked in my bed or hers. But of course that made no sense. Now that Lucia was gone, I couldn’t leave the kids. The evening would pass, Charlie would come home at whatever time he came home, with whatever excuse he chose to make up, and I would have no way to prove he was lying.
Nothing about our unbearable life would have changed.
I changed into my pajamas and stretched out in bed. But I couldn’t sleep, glancing every ten minutes at the red digits on Charlie’s nightstand clock. Since Charlie was telling me I had nothing to worry about, I had been trying to live that way. And to the people who knew us, our lives probably looked no different. Only we knew how our eyes no longer found each other, how we no longer read oddments to each other from the Sunday Times. How I had started sniffing Charlie’s dirty shirts and underwear for Zulya’s spoor. Once, I’d plucked an unfamiliar hair from the sink and brought it into the hospital to actually examine under a microscope.
Maybe if I’d been able to talk to someone about all this, I would have settled on a healthier course of action. But my best friends from growing up and from college had dispersed to places like Boston and St. Paul. And what I needed to talk about wasn’t easy to broach long distance. It was even harder to bring up over coffee at work, on the treadmill at the gym, at the park on a kid’s play date. It was always Charlie I turned to when something was gnawing at me, Charlie who heard me out, who helped me understand my feelings, who gave me my bearings in the human landscape.
I kept looking at the clock. Charlie didn’t come home and he didn’t come home and I finally after midnight, I began to lose my mind. That is the only way I could explain to myself afterward what I did to my children that night. And there’s probably no other way to describe it, the sweating frenzy that I worked myself into, the state in which I was no longer thinking and planning but simply acting. I sleepwalked, my consciousness surfacing only sporadically to register scenes that made no sense: Here I was grinding coffee beans, enough for about six people – next I had the computer on in the vestibule and I was searching for something in Charlie’s Hotmail — then I was playing “Mi tradi” from Don Giovanni on the stereo at a volume that could have woken up the whole building – then I was getting dressed, all in black.
When I returned to awareness, I was in Chloe’s room. And I had made up my mind. Chloe lay in the yoga position called “pose of a child”: on her stomach with her legs drawn up under her, butt in the air. To make her look dressed without waking her, I turned her on her back and slipped a skirt over her pajamas. Dante lay spread-eagle, his face cocked in the blind surprise you often see on Charlie when sleeping. When I lifted his legs to pull a pair of sweat pants up them, he asked “Where’s Lucia?” But his eyes stayed shut, even while he stood in the middle of his room and I fitted a sweatshirt over his head. When I turned to search for his shoes in the darkened closet, he collapsed back onto his bed and I had to pull him up again.
Chloe quickly fell asleep again in the stroller; Dante I towed like a raft. Only when we passed into the hallway, with its bright twenty-four-hour lights did he flutter awake. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“To see your father.”
We were getting out of the elevator in the lobby when he spoke again. “Is he at work?”
“No. Just visiting someone.”
Both of them dozed in the taxi, but getting Chloe into her stroller again, after the ride to Harlem woke her up. Her mouth worked rhythmically on the finger thrust in her face and her round pale eyes — Charlie’s eyes — began to take in everything.
I had no plan. Beyond going to her apartment, beyond finding them there, I hadn’t figured out any of the details. And so we stood, for a long time opposite the locked door to Zulya’s very ordinary seven-story brick building, watching, waiting.
Three men passed, smoking and talking loudly in Spanish. A woman dressed in a blanket asked us for spare change. Two feet from the door, half obscured by an ice cream sandwich wrapper, lay a flattened beige condom. In her stroller, Chloe began to whimper, and Dante said over and over that he wanted to go home. He, too, had begun to cry when finally after one o’clock, a Sikh in an old-fashioned smoking jacket emerged from the lobby, pushing open the door. When he saw me leap forward to catch it, he stopped and held it so I could push the stroller through. Dante followed.
Breaking and entering
Zulya’s lobby was surprisingly ornate, with faded gilt pilasters. But there was no elevator, and so I had to carry Chloe upstairs in one arm and the stroller in the other, tugging Dante along by command alone. On the second floor landing he stopped. “I’m tired.”
“It’s just a little further.”
“I want to go home.”
“Come on, Dante. Now.”
“I want to go home.”
“The sooner we go up and see Daddy, the sooner we can all go home together.”
“I want to go home now.”
“I’ll tell you what: when we get to the top of this flight of stairs, I’ll give you a special treat.”
Dante got up. “What is it?”
“You’ll have to go up the stairs to see.” And the treat is: your dad in the arms of a naked woman. I knew this was the wrong way. But by now I couldn’t stop myself. I’d let my fury build too long, let myself go half crazy.
We climbed. Zulya’s apartment lay down a long carpeted hall that smelled of many long-ago dinners. I pushed the button of the mechanical bell under the peephole in the front door. No one came to answer.
“I want my treat now,” Dante said.
“In a minute.” I rang the bell again.
This time there was stirring and a female voice from the inside. “Who is?”
“You said you’d give me a treat,” said Dante.
Muffled through the door, I thought I could hear a man as well. “Charlie’s wife. Is he in there? It’s an emergency.”
The door came open a few inches, then stopped, held by its chain. I could only see a slice of Zulya’s face, but from the photograph she had e-mailed to Charlie I recognized the dark lids on her eyes. “Why do you ring my door?”
“I need to see Charlie.”
“It is middle night.”
“Let me in.”
“Come back in morning. We cannot talk –”
Without thinking, without knowing I had the strength in me, I grabbed the door handle, drew it back and thrust hard. The chain guard must have been a very old or very loose because it tore free and the door swung open.
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