Two Hearts Beat As One

Here’s what they don’t tell you when you get married. They don’t tell you the beautiful laughing girl—who was once so crazy about you—can change from your best friend into your worst enemy. They don’t tell you this same person who can give you everything–the sun, the moon, the stars–can also take it all away, and more: your home, your credit, your children. They never tell you that.

If they did, no one would ever get married, would they?

No one told me, and when I met Beth at that party so many years ago, I knew right away I was going to marry her. I could see my future stretching out bright and beautiful: the promotions at work, the house, the babies. I swear I saw it all, that night, in her eyes. I saw the promise of a future, my future, our future.

Okay, so maybe I needed a better crystal ball.

We got married, rice falling all around us like confetti, her laugher in my ears. I was just starting out, a very junior financial advisor at the firm of Hogan Waterside Byron. Every morning the portraits of former advisors frowned at me as I walked through the corridors to my cubicle; every night I came home to Beth, and the Beatles were right: Love really is all you need.

And it seemed nothing could go wrong. They approved the mortgage on our first anniversary–it was a sign; we told each other excitedly, and maxed out the credit card at the most expensive restaurant in town, celebrating. The house was small, but Beth loved decorating, comparing colors at Home Depot and talking with her mother about wall treatments. Keith was born, a miracle beyond anything I’d ever imagined, tiny and wrinkled and angry.

The baby was hard, and maybe Beth was right, maybe I wasn’t around enough, maybe I took advantage of her quitting her job to stay home and care for him. But she’d wanted it—it was all she’d talked about for two straight years, how she hated working, how she just wanted to care for our family. I was fine with that: my energy was elsewhere. I was working long hours, having dinners with important people.

T.J. was born when Keith was four, and things got a little better after that. I had some major accounts and a staff. I could delegate work things. I got up early and took Keith to nursery school so Beth could sleep in. I could spell her with the baby in the evenings. Those kids… I can’t find the words to say how much I loved them—how much I love them. Maybe that’s what love does, at its best: grow and grow and grow.

I thought everything was fine. We owned a slightly nicer house. We had the kids. We’d both discovered a love for the ocean and for sailing, and Thursday nights we had a sitter and raced one-designs at the yacht club. Everyone was fiercely competitive until it was over and we were heading back to the club bar and pizza and beer.

We had a lot of arguments on the way home from racing, but I always thought it had to do with the alcohol; Beth didn’t hold her liquor well, and said things she’d never say sober. I took that into account. It’s what people do, when they’re married, when they care about each other.

Turns out, it had nothing to do with the drink, and it had everything to do with Tom.

That’s where the betrayal cut the deepest. Not because Beth didn’t want me, and wanted him, but because he went along with the deal. Tom had a reputation: every racing season he had a different woman. A different married woman; that was what kept it safe. But he was also my buddy: we’d done long, arduous sails together, Halifax, Eastern Point. We’d relied on each other, put our lives into each other’s hands. For Beth to go after Tom, and him to respond… Hard to say, which hurt more.

She called his bluff in the end. I think Tom assumed he’d have a nice little affair and move on at the end of the season, just as he did every year; but by then Beth had announced her intention of leaving me, and there he was, stuck, with this woman and her two children on his doorstep. He did the decent thing, and married her, but I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t his first choice of an outcome.

Beth’s moving in with Tom had severe repercussions on my life. I couldn’t afford to get too depressed. The courts were watching me, and there was too much at stake. I sold the house at a loss and got an apartment near Tom’s so I could see the kids. It surprised me how little I missed Beth and how much I missed my children. I stopped racing. She’d drained the fun out of sailing.

My lawyer was sympathetic, but firm. No, it didn’t matter that Beth had left me, had moved my kids away from me and taken them to live with her new husband. There was no way I’d get custody. Yes, I had to shell out plenty of money in child support. No, I had no say in the way they spent my money. Yes, it sucked.

Even before this all happened, I was in what they could consider a slightly murderous frame of mind.

Benjamin always tells this story like there’s only one side to it, like I’m just this thrill-seeking airhead who tired of him and then moved on. Benjamin thinks we had this oh-so-magical connection when we first met, but it wasn’t anything like that.

For me, it was a matter of survival. I come from Cape Cod—not the Cape visitors flock to for whale watches and collecting shells and buying souvenirs; no, I was from the year-round Cape. The Cape of shuttered buildings and bad storms, of nothing to do in the winter and too much to do in the summer. Going to Boston for junior college was about the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. I was not going back to the grinding poverty and selling ice cream to tourists in the August heat. I set out to marry Benjamin, and that’s what I did. I liked him, and I think I was in love with him for a while; but Benjamin was my ticket out of nowhere.

We didn’t agree on much, even from the beginning. He wanted to save, save, save, as though we were waiting for something to happen someday instead of enjoying ourselves. He thought I should work, which wasn’t why I had flirted with him all night at that stupid party. What do you do with an associate’s degree? I couldn’t wait to get pregnant, because then I knew I wouldn’t have to work anymore.

Keith was born, and Benjamin acted oh-so-thrilled, but he wasn’t as thrilled when it was time to change diapers or deal with teething pain. He worked longer hours, which, of course he blamed on me, because we were trying to get by on one salary . He was never around, and he had no idea how lonely it is, stuck there in the suburbs (which could have been the Cape all over again, except I had a house now instead of a trailer) with just the TV and this angry baby for company.

Benjamin met some people at work who hung out at the yacht club, and raced sailboats with them Thursday nights. That was the last straw. Not only did he get to be with people, real people, adults, all day long, but then he didn’t come home because he was out having fun. I had a hissy-fit over that, I’ll admit it, but he surprised me. He started paying for someone to watch Keith so I could go with him. And it was better than anything I’d ever known before. Better than shopping. Better than sex.

A lot better than sex.

Funny how I grew up on the Cape, surrounded by tourists and second-home owners with their sailboats, and I never knew what it was like being out there. Not only being out there, though–being in a race, involved as a crew, a team, everyone working together to win. Men are supposed to have a drive to win, but I had it, too, from the first moment I stepped on deck.

And that’s another thing: there were men at the club, men who were happy to explain things to me, men who made me feel appreciated. Who flirted with me? I couldn’t remember the last time anybody flirted with me. Who saw me as a woman, not just a wife, a housekeeper, a mother? As me, Beth. An interesting person. An attractive person. A sexual person.

Benjamin became more distant. He was too tired, working too hard, the kids were too loud; even on Thursday nights, at the club, he preferred to analyze the race afterwards with some of the diehard sailing geeks rather than relax, drink and have fun. He brought everything on himself.

Tom wasn’t the first man I flirted with. I get more—relaxed—when I’ve had a few beers; and I think I was pretty relaxed with quite a few of the guys at the club. Not that Benjamin would have ever noticed, of course.

Tom noticed. He noticed me. He asked me what I thought about things. When there was a lull during the race, one day out on the harbor, he grabbed my arm and pointed to a beautiful sunset. Tom wanted to share it. That’s what I call intimacy.

I knew he had a reputation. Women found him attractive, women could talk to him, and it made him more desirable. And then, when Benjamin signed on to do the Eastern Point race–an overnight, weekend race–I said go ahead, and that was when I first slept with Tom.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Secret affairs take on a whole life of their own, a certain excitement they generate, and you never recapture that excitement later. But I didn’t know that, then; all I could do was compare the everyday tedious, trivial kind of life I had with Benjamin with the excitement, the tension, the desire of being with Tom.

Benjamin found out. I guess at some level I wanted him to. I liked the drama, and I secretly wanted to see these two guys fight over me. It disappointed me when they didn’t. The whole thing perplexed Tom, Benjamin selling the house underneath me so I’d have to move, too, and he wondered why I moved in with Tom? What else was I supposed to do? I wanted someone to take care of me, wasn’t it?

As for the kids, they were mine. No question of them living with Benjamin. I’m their mother. That’s what I do: I’m Keith and T.J.’s mother. If I didn’t have them, then who would I be?

Would I even exist at all?

The alimony stopped once Beth and Tom got married. Must have been one hell of a trade-off for her. I think her lawyer advised her to do it, though she kept saying it was for the good of the children. It was a little late to think about what was good for the children; I told her; and she went drama-queen and said the least I could do was wish her well.

I wished she could be at the bottom of a well.

The break I got in alimony didn’t last long, because the kids started having, in the language of the aforementioned attorney, “increasing needs,” and it seemed for a while I was being hauled into court every six months for an increase in child support. No one defined for me what all this extra money was supposed to do for my kids, but I noticed the new granite countertops in Beth’s kitchen, the regular breakfasts at Starbucks, the pool in their backyard. All for the kids. In the meantime, what the court didn’t notice was that I, too, had to maintain a home for my kids and carry the extra rent on a three-bedroom place.

I was parenting the best I could, and every time I went and dropped the kids off at Beth and Tom’s house, I thought my heart would to burst.

Life can’t keep dealing you low cards indefinitely, and when the kids were five and nine I met Tenley.

She stood in front of a crowded room at a coffeehouse, just her and her guitar, and I swear every man in that place wanted to be with her, every woman there wanted to be her. She was that kind of person; she had that kind of voice, that presence. As if the soul of some long-ago Buddhist wise person, the soul of some butterfly, the soul of some reincarnated saint.

I fell fast, I’ll admit; but I did nothing about it for a long time. I learned my lesson with Beth. And Tenley carried her own emotional baggage: she could sing about pain because she had known far too much of it. We took our time. Then she met the kids, and they liked her, and that night Beth went ballistic. Screamed on the phone. Who was this woman, and how dare I let her near Beth’s kids?

I reminded her they were my kids, too, and I had had little say in Tom living them; she couldn’t have it both ways. Three weeks later, I had to appear in court; Beth not only didn’t want Tenley ever seeing the kids again, but wanted full legal custody of them, and felt I was untrustworthy to act in their best interests. I looked across the room at this woman I’d once loved, once held, once made love to. This woman who had filled with anger, hatred, and ugliness. I felt sick. My attorney, for once it seemed, prevailed; and I thought life might be back to normal.

Until I asked Tenley to marry me.

Benjamin thought about himself. He had everything. He went out for a drink when he wanted. He had the freedom to come and go as he wished—he wasn’t stuck at home night after night, with kids, laundry, and everything that somehow piles up. I was the real parent. He could have at least acknowledged that.

Instead, he brought her into their lives!

I know, it’s not about her as a person. I’d have reacted the same way no matter who she was. I didn’t want someone else being a mother to my kids. I was their mother. Their real mother. Their only mother. She had nothing to do with them, but stepped in as if she had every right to be there.

I’m sorry her life didn’t work for her to have her own kids. But that was no reason to steal mine.

At a Thursday night race, I thought about it. Tom and I went every week, and to bigger ones too. Sometimes on a weekend when Benjamin had the kids, and Tom and I both went; otherwise, we alternated. Sailing was the only thing exciting for me. It got me out of the house. I used to imagine we’d have a better social life, but that didn’t happen.

At the bar, after the race, Tom came over and pulled me away from the guys I’d been laughing with. “I’ve got great news,” he said. His eyes were shining, shining like they used to whenever he caught sight of me. “Gary just confirmed it. A job offer, babe, the one we’ve been waiting for.”

“Job?” I vaguely remembered him talking about it, but hadn’t been paying attention. “What job?”

“You know. Manager of technical support, over at EconSys. Gary’s one of the VPs. We’re golden, Beth!”