“Fidelity is a personality trait”

In an excerpt from Ayelet Waldman's new novel, sparks fly between heroine Emilia Greenleaf and her older, married lover.

Topics: Fiction, Sex, Love and Sex, Books,

"Fidelity is a personality trait"

Jack was the first married man I ever dated. I believe that women who date married men are cruel and irresponsible, and that they betray their sisters. Worse, I believe that they are fools. If they think that the married men whom they are seducing will be faithful to them, then they are deluding themselves. A man who cheats on one wife will surely cheat on another. Fidelity is a personality trait; it is not case specific. It is a matter of character, not of circumstance.

The commencement of my relationship with Jack was the most typical of stories. I was a young associate at the law firm where he is a partner. He was my boss. We first kissed on a business trip, outside the door of my hotel room, on the third floor of the Claremont Hotel in Oakland, California. The first time we made love was, as I’ve said before, in his office. I was thirty years old when we first began seeing each other; he was struggling to come to terms with his impending fortieth birthday. I am Jack’s red Porsche.

It’s all very trite and seedy, sordid and humiliating, except that I love him. I love him so much that while I know other people feel this kind of love, I cannot imagine that it is possible that they continue with their daily lives without stopping strangers on the street and declaring the magnificence of their lovers. I love him so much that I am in a state of constant terror that something will happen to him — I want to wrap him in cotton batting and put him in my pocket where I know he will be safe. I only feel totally secure with him before my eyes, in no danger of dying in a plane crash, or getting hit by a taxicab, or having a bowling ball fall from the roof of a building to crush his skull. I love him so much that I want to swallow him, to start with his curled pinkie toes and work my way up to the whorls of his small and high-set ears.

I never knew that it was possible to feel this way. I thought I was in love before. There was an Israeli who worked for Moshe’s Moving whom I was convinced I ought to marry. There was a guy in my orientation group in law school whom I probably would have married but for his conviction that marrying a white woman would ruin his chances of being elected to public office (he and his mocha-colored wife just moved to Washington, D.C., representatives of the Nineteenth Congressional District of New York). There were others, so many that nowadays, when sluttiness has come back into fashion, I am a veritable trendsetter. But I never before felt anything remotely akin to what I have felt for Jack from the moment I first saw him. I loved him for two years before he noticed me, and for another year before he allowed himself to touch me.



I saw Jack on my very first day at Friedman, Taft, Mayberry and Stein. I was being led down the hall by the recruitment coordinator, on my way to the office I was to share with another first-year associate, a languid, heavy-lidded young graduate of Yale who gave the impression of not caring very much about his work at the firm, who took long lunches and left early, but who would become the youngest person ever to make partner, after structuring a series of telecommunications acquisition deals that left opposing counsel reeling at his unexpected avarice and mendacity. I followed the recruitment coordinator, staring at her heels, which bulged over the back of her mules. Her shoes were too small, and she snapped them against her feet when she walked. I was doing my best to seem bright-eyed and eager, not to appear ungrateful for my job with its six-figure income. I did not want to let on just how depressed this place made me, the gracious wood-paneled lobby, the grim-faced cheer of the receptionists, the long hallways, a crossword puzzle of square offices just barely larger than a cubicle, all with the doors propped open to better permit the sleek-suited attorneys to exhibit their industry to their falsely benevolent taskmasters.

I had formulated no clear plan about my future when I started law school, and even as the three years drew to a close my ambitions grew no less muddled. To this day I am not sure why I became an attorney, other than because my father is one, although that might as soon have given me reason to avoid the law as drawn me to it. It is not that my father has ever expressed dissatisfaction with his career. On the contrary, he is absolutely content with his professional life. He practices real estate law in New Jersey, near the town where I grew up, in a firm with offices right off Route 17. My father was once the president of the New Jersey Bar Association. It is not any discontentment on his part that might have repelled me, but rather the fact that when I was a child the only thing guaranteed to lay my insomniac brain to rest was a discussion with my father about one of his deals. Further motivation for choosing another career is the fact that my sister, Allison, is an attorney in the appellate division of Legal Aid in Manhattan. They say she will soon be appointed to the judiciary. They, meaning Allison and my father.

I did not go to law school immediately after graduating from college, as did both Allison and my father. After a few years of travel and the sort of vaguely artistic jobs that college graduates with little ambition and less talent find when they first move to New York City, I took the LSAT. I took it on a lark, I suppose, or perhaps because I was sick of living in an apartment where I could turn on the coffeemaker in the kitchen without rising from the pullout sofa in the living room where I slept. To be honest, I don’t really remember why I took the LSAT. But I did very well — better than Allison — and after that law school seemed inevitable. I started out with the vague purpose of doing public interest law, but criminal law was the only thing that interested me in the slightest and I was afraid of following in the aggressively competent footsteps of my older sister. In the fall of my third year at law school, when I was interviewing for jobs, I decided that if my work was doomed to be monotonous, it might as well be lucrative. Thus I found myself at Friedman Taft, following the swishing behind of the recruiting coordinator in the ill-fitting shoes.

She lost her mule outside Jack’s office. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow she kicked it off, and then tripped over it. I was walking too close behind her and when she stumbled I nearly came down on top of her. I righted myself by grabbing onto the pedestal of a carved wooden sculpture of a naked woman that was displayed in the hallway. The sculpture rocked back and forth, and for a moment I was worried that we would both, the wooden woman and I, come crashing down on top of the recruiting coordinator. We didn’t. The sculpture held fast to its plinth, and I found my balance and stayed on my feet. I was immediately sorry that I had. A handsome man was crouched beside the recruiting coordinator, her foot in his hands.

“Does it hurt when I squeeze?” he said. The muscles of his back strained against the soft white fabric of his shirt. I could see them flex as he lifted her foot gently in the palm of his hand. I felt a nearly insurmountable urge to kneel down behind him and press my body against his, cleave my breasts and belly to his back, slide my fingers around his waist.

“Ooh,” the recruiting coordinator murmured, wincing. The faker.

“I think it’s probably sprained,” he said.

He laid her foot tenderly on the floor, blew his forelock out of his eyes — he was going through a floppy-hair phase back then — and reached around her waist. He hoisted her to her feet and half led, half carried her into his office. “Marilyn,” he called out. “Will you see what you can do about finding some ice?”

His secretary, whose desk was in the hallway outside his office, got to her feet.

She turned to me. “Was Frances taking you somewhere before the tragic loss of her shoe?” She didn’t seem in a particular hurry to get the ice.

“Yes. She was showing me to my new office.”

“I think you’ll be on your own for a while. What’s your name?”

“Emilia Greenleaf. I’m a new associate.”

“What number office are you in?”

I looked down at the folder in my hand. On the page with my code number and my telephone extension and e-mail address was an office number. “Eighteen eighteen,” I said.

“Double life,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“The numbers. That’s what they mean.” She looked at me appraisingly. “You are Jewish, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Marilyn Nudelman.”

“I’m not religious or anything.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Come, I’ll show you to your office.”

Marilyn is still Jack’s secretary, and while she danced the hora at my wedding, while she is satisfied that at least I am more Jewish than Carolyn Soule, twelfth-generation descendant of the Mayflower, still she does not consider me Jewish enough. This is clear from the presents she sends me — a Hebrew calendar every year before Rosh Hashanah, a box of fruit jells at Passover, a little mesh bag of gold coins at Hanukkah. Each gift is accompanied by a little explanatory note, as if she really believes I do not understand the significance of gelt or wheat-free candy. There is something passive-aggressive about all this gift giving, but I am certainly up to the challenge. I buy lavish presents for Jack to give to Marilyn — cashmere sweaters from Saks, a Coach briefcase and matching purse, gift certificates for a day of beauty treatments at Elizabeth Arden. Then I insist that he give them to her on Christmas Eve.

This gentle battle will likely continue forever, or certainly until Marilyn retires. It began on the evening Jack first succumbed to the signals I had been sending him for three years, ever since he failed to notice that I was standing behind shoeless Frances Defarge in the hallway in front of his office.

It was late in the afternoon, around six o’clock. I had prepared a brief for Jack in support of a motion to recuse a Texas judge who had not once but twice referred to Jack as his client’s “Jew York lawyer.” This was not the first assignment Jack had given me in the three years I had worked at Friedman Taft. There had been a few minor research projects over the past year, memos a first-year associate might well have been assigned, but I had leaped at the chance to work with Jack. This brief was finally an opportunity for me to show off a little. I was good at briefs. I had learned while still in law school that style, though it could not entirely substitute for adequate research and a sophisticated grasp of the law, could make the difference between a winning argument and one that put the judges to sleep. This brief was not meant to persuade the Texas judge. The man probably had a hard time every morning deciding which robe to wear, his black or his white, and to him I, too, would be just another shyster from Jew York. I wrote the brief for the appellate court, and I wrote it for Jack. It was lucid, it was incisive, it sliced and diced the bigoted judge and left him bleeding and burning on a cross of relevant precedent. And it was funny.

I sat in a chair in front of Jack’s desk and watched him read. At first his face was blank, but as he kept reading a small smile played on the corner of his lips. Jack’s lips are very red, he looks like he’s wearing plum-colored lipstick, except in the height of winter, when they get chapped from skiing and are covered in flakes of white peeling skin. His upper lip is curled at the edges, and his smile begins on the right-hand side. His lip fluttered in a half smile, once, then again. By the time he’d reached the end he was laughing.

“This is very good,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“Judge Gibbs is going to burst a blood vessel when he reads this.”

I have very pale, freckled skin and I blush easily, but not prettily. I mottle. Knowing that I am blushing makes me self-conscious about how bad I look, and so I grow ever redder until, often, someone asks if I am in need of medical attention. Jack watched his words of praise have their effect on me. His eyes flicked to the V of my shirt. I had on a white cotton blouse that day, its collar starched into stiff wings on either side of my neck. This left my throat bare, an effect which that morning had struck me as demurely sexy. Now it served as a wide-open canvas for the most startling pyrotechnics of my cardiovascular system.

“I mean that in the best possible way,” Jack said.

“I know,” I said.

He studied my throat, and something about his face shifted; it was as if he began to glow. Now I know that he was blushing, too, but in those days, I was not well versed enough in the topography of his skin to understand what the variations of color and tone meant. He has his mother’s olive complexion, and when he blushes he does not turn red like I do. Instead, his face takes on a subcutaneous, burnished, coppery hue. It is a subtle change, and at first one senses only that he has become even more beautiful, more alive, more vibrant. Jack shines when he is embarrassed or ashamed.

“I have just a few notes,” he said.

Jack spread the pages of the brief out on the black credenza against the far wall of his office. The credenza is ever so slightly too low for comfort, and when I went to look at his notes, I ended up bent over a bit at the waist. The tabletop was wood, varnished to a high shine, and as we stood side by side our reflections were clear, almost as if we were looking into a mirror. I could see inside my shirt. One of my breasts had fallen forward and swelled outside of the molded cup of my bra, bared almost to the nipple. Jack stood to my left and a little behind me, his left hand pushing the pages aside, one by one, his right shoved into his pocket. I know now, because he told me, that he was doing his best to camoflage his erection.

I was wearing a black miniskirt, not so short that it was unseemly, but neither so long that it would pass the scrutiny of the headmistress of a Catholic school. Underneath I wore stockings and a garter belt. Had it been July or August, I might have claimed that I wore this outmoded style of lingerie because it was hot, and because wearing panty hose in the summer in New York is an invitation to a yeast infection. This was, in fact, the reason that I owned the garter belt. But it was March. The first crocuses were just beginning to peek through the remains of the last snowfall. I wore a garter belt and stockings because I had fantasized about seducing Jack. I had dressed for the fantasy, but had not planned for it. I had not imagined I would work up the nerve.

I bent low over the table and reworked a sentence he had marked. While I agreed that my phrasing had been awkward, I thought his correction even more so. I leaned my cheek on my left hand, scribbled a better sentence than the one he had written, and crossed out a line in the next paragraph that now seemed redundant. At that point, I realized that my skirt had ridden up, that the black straps of my garter belt were surely visible, cutting into the flesh on the backs of my thighs, that the tops of my stockings were sagging just enough to leave bare an few inches of soft, white skin. I paused, the pen hovering over the paper. I could hear the hiss of Jack’s breath coming from his nose. Before I could stop myself, before I could even think through the ramifications of what I was doing, I stepped one foot ever so slightly away from the other, parting my legs, and then I leaned gently backward, until I felt the wool of his trouser leg brush against my thigh.

Jack pressed back. It was like junior high school, like a Friday night dance, bumping and grinding against the hopeless boner of a pimple-faced boy who knows with a desperate certainly that he will never, not in a million years, get laid. Except that there was no bumping and grinding, just soft, insistent pressure. And except that I would have fucked Jack in a second, right there, with the door open for everyone to see.

I turned to the hallway and standing in the doorway, her hand on the doorknob, was Marilyn. Our eyes met, and then she shut the door with a firm click of the latch.

I felt a gut-wrenching stab of guilt. I felt like I had pursued Jack, tracked him, shot him, and heaved him over my shoulder, with no thought at all for his wife and child. But that’s not true. I thought about them. I thought about them all the time. I felt guilty and miserable, and I hated myself for wanting so wildly and urgently to take him away from them, not just because I knew it was a bad thing to pursue a married man but because I knew precisely how Carolyn and William felt. I knew what it meant to have the man around whom you have built your life betray you, discard you, and find a younger, more appetizing object of his desire.

When my sister Lucy informed me of my father’s many infidelities, she was revealing nothing I did not already know. In fact, there are secrets about my father that would bring my sister to her knees with horror if she knew them. I was the one who held my mother’s hair back from her face while she vomited her despair into the pale blue toilet of the master bathroom in the house where I grew up. I sat in the waiting room of my mother’s gynecologist — the same doctor who had, ten years earlier, given me a prescription for Zovirax, along with a lecture about sexual responsibility — while my mother lay on his examining table and tried to explain, without crying, why a fifty-three-year-old woman who had only slept with one man in her entire life needed an HIV test. Only I — not my sisters, not my parents’ friends, not my grandmother, not, I presume, my father’s law partners — know that my father did not leave my mother. She threw him out after discovering that he had been spending as much as $50,000 a year supporting a Russian stripper. No one knows but me, and my father has no idea that I know. I have kept my knowledge a secret from him, and revealed his secret to no one, not even Jack, to whom I have told everything else. My father’s secret has been safe with me despite what it has cost me. Every time I see my husband and my father together, I feel soiled, as if my father’s filth has been rubbed off on me by my complicit silence. I don’t know why I haven’t told Jack. I don’t know if it’s because I am afraid he will be disgusted with me and with my father, or if I am more afraid that he will not be, that the behavior that I find so horrifying will strike my beloved as normal.

I worry that this is something men do. Maybe there is a vast secret underworld about which the wives and daughters know nothing. Maybe the men are all there, in the clip joints of New Jersey, watching as some girl barely out of her teens, a faint blush of acne staining her buttocks pale pink, spreads wide her spindly thighs clad in nothing but a poorly laundered polyester G-string. Maybe all men sit in dark rooms, fingers itching to explore the plump bodies of girls younger than their daughters. Maybe it’s perfectly normal to slip hundred-dollar bills into the fists of fat pimps with gold chains digging into the flesh of their necks and then check into third-rate hotel rooms for an hour or two, paying extra to leave the condom in its wrapper, paying even more to do things the wives and daughters could never even imagine.

Or maybe my father is just a fucking psycho. I vote for that. It helps me to keep from hating him, thinking he’s crazy. It helps me to have some kind of relationship with him, after he left my mother wretched and alone in a five-bedroom, mock-Tudor house, crying into a wine spritzer, asking me if I thought he would have been faithful if she had not gained so much weight over the years. It helps me to love my husband to think that only men suffering from my father’s mental illness — sexual compulsion, sexual obsession, surely there is some heading in the DSM-IV under which to file my father — would engage in this kind of behavior.

So, yes, I’ve seen betrayal and its cost. When I stood, bent over Jack’s credenza, his erection pushing against my ass, even before I saw my self-loathing reflected in Marilyn’s eyes, some part of me felt miserable and sorry for what I was doing to Carolyn and William. Mostly, though, I was just so happy, so filled with joy at the palpable evidence of Jack’s fervor, that I pushed away the idea of the devastation I wrought on his wife and child. I was the atom bomb of desire, and they were Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I could not spare time for mercy. I had a war to win.

Copyright © 2006 by Ayelet Waldman. From the book “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” by Ayelet Waldman to be published by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Used with permission.

Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," "Daughter's Keeper" and of the Mommy-Track mystery series. She lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.

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