Joyland

Los Angeles |

All That We Never Were

by Alexis Landau

edited by Lisa Locascio

My shins are encased in flesh-toned pantyhose. The wrong choice, clearly, as the bare legs of all the other women flash brazenly underneath cocktail dresses. An ash blonde in a fuchsia shift and gold-studded heels stands nearby, talking about how much she loved her time in Barcelona. Her bronzed calves bulge. An actress who was very popular in the 80s is also here, statuesque in a columnar dress the color of wine. She wears thick black sunglasses and an unreadable expression. Her husband, sweating in a khaki suit, downs a glass of champagne.

I met him once at a café near the beach to discuss his cooking blog about the favorite meals of famous writers. Who knew Virginia Woolf preferred a simple Sunday roast to the more nuanced duck terrine? Or that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hangover cure included blood-oranges, mint leaves, and lemonade? At that lunch, I drank a lot of coffee and apologized for my lack of sleep. My daughter was barely five months old. I complained about how she woke every hour during the night, which prompted him to opine on the benefits of sleep training and the joys of parenthood. He laughed, his large white teeth flashing, his relaxed face a testament to how distant a memory such sleepless nights were for him, nearly forgotten.

Tonight he doesn’t appear joyous, more hunted, as he periodically pulls on his starched collar, attempting to loosen its stranglehold. His eyes dart around the garden, his stance tight, coiled. I have also changed. I now have a second child, a son, three months old, and the debilitating lack of sleep has returned. I’m trying to remember it’s only temporary.

People we don’t know mull around the sprawling backyard, sipping champagne and reaching out for appetizers as they swirl by—deviled eggs, smoked salmon crostini, arancini balls. The wedding is at the bride’s childhood home: a stately Spanish villa with white-washed walls, a multi-level garden, a long thin pool with shimmering aquamarine water, a tennis court beyond.

Once the bride told me that she only wanted to be surrounded by beautiful things. She brushed her overgrown bangs to the side with the back of her hand, smiling slyly.

“Is that too much to ask?”

Well, yes, I thought, but instead I replied, “Why not?”

Now she works at an art gallery, performing vague menial tasks which leave her ample time to blog about how men can fashion their bachelor pads into aesthetically pleasing spaces. Create a beautiful corner with succulents. A row of these Italian ceramic bowls—note the gradations in color, from blood red to ochre—will transform your living room into un vero paradisio! Sometimes I imagine her sitting at the front desk, surrounded by the gallery’s cool, bracingly white walls, struggling to decide whether or not a pair of Moroccan throw pillows deserves mention.

Standing next to my husband, I suddenly hate what I’m wearing: a navy blue silk dress and strappy black heels. It’s too formal, too conventional, not Californian or Mediterranean enough, out of place in this lush garden teeming with bougainvillea and jasmine and the gentle strumming of guitars. My spiked heels sink into the moist grass again and again, forcing me to choose between two equally unattractive options: immobility (standing awkwardly with my arms crossed) or re-experiencing the awful moment when I take a step and the pointed tip of my heel dislodges a clump of soil from the lawn. But the pantyhose are decidedly the worst part. I wore them to mask the ugly shin bruise I acquired climbing into my daughter’s crib, trying to cajole her awake from her afternoon nap. When I swung my leg over the railing, my shinbone hit one of the wooden slats hard. A little blood emerged.

“Fuck,” I yelled, staring down at my unshaven leg, imagining the ugly yellow-green bruise that would surely form. My daughter sucked her thumb, her security blanket twined around her hand as she considered me with a reproachful stare.

My husband lunges for an arancini ball and takes a savage bite. Holding it only a few inches from my mouth he says, “Try—it’s good.”

I don’t really want it, but I crane my neck forward. The remaining half-arancini falls from the toothpick onto my dress, leaving a smudge of grease. I look down, knowing it will stain. I think about his bad habit of foisting food into my mouth, unsolicited.

“I’ll get some water,” he offers.

I glance around, feeling my face burn. There is no water, only trays and trays of champagne ferried by waiters in white jackets who glide smoothly up and down the shallow steps that link the veranda to the backyard. The longer I wait, the more certain it is that the grease spot will stain, settle. But my husband, a man of quick action, magically procures a glass of ice water and a napkin, dips the edge of the thick napkin into the water, and dabs it onto the spot. The water grows the spot.

“It’s worse,” I say, panicking, even though I know most people won’t notice. A sharp current of anxiety spikes. The stain reflects how chaotic and unhinged I often feel by the host of concerns that persistently flash through me, with varying intensity, at any given moment. Is the baby getting enough milk? Will my daughter start talking more? The pitch-black mole on my husband’s back could be melanoma. How much longer do we have on this planet before existence becomes untenable? Are things already untenable? Is there a fate worse than outliving your children?

This is the first time we’ve been out together, my husband and I, since our son was born. It’s disorienting, as if I’ve emerged from a darkened movie theater into bright daylight. I keep glancing around, thinking I hear his cries, but it’s only the general hum of conversation, with its atonal variations.

My husband glances up at the sky. A small plane flies overhead.

“When night comes, you won’t even know the spot is there.”

I try to swallow but a hard knot forms in my throat. I find myself forcing back tears.

“Okay,” I manage, taking a ragged breath.

The late afternoon sun bathes my bare shoulders, but still I shiver, the air hinting at the oncoming evening. We sit in one of last rows, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Even though the bride and groom met each other at our Christmas party three years ago, we don’t know them terribly well. By chance they happened to be at our house at the same time, with friends of friends. And yet they act as if their union was destined, an act of God, and our house the house of miracles. Which explains the elaborate gift when our son arrived: a sterling silver cup, bowl and spoon.

“Just what a baby needs,” I joked, pretending to pour imaginary porridge into the little bowl.

“It’s sweet of them,” my husband countered.

My daughter has since co-opted the feeding set for her dolls, who now dine from their own silver.

I stare at the hair of an older woman sitting in front of us, thick and henna-dyed, coiled into a French twist, not a strand out of place. Her heavy gold earrings sway as she turns to whisper something to the woman next to her. I had attempted to make my own hair sleek and sophisticated, pushing the still-wet strands back into a hurried bun. In the car, I applied makeup: a touch of blush, mascara, some foundation. Despite my efforts, I look tired and worn-out. The dewy, radiant version of myself that I wanted to capture has been out of reach for quite some time.

The guitars break into a sharper, more uplifting melody, signaling the start of the procession. First the bride’s sister walks solemnly down the rose-draped aisle, trying to suppress an ironic smirk. She’s young, only twenty-three, and seems to think this whole wedding is one big joke, that perhaps all weddings are. Her bare back, white and gleaming, is littered with little moles. Family members flank the chuppah on both sides. We all wait for the couple to stand under it and exchange those everlasting vows. My husband clenches my hand a little too forcefully and I clench back, wanting him to know that I love him.

I worry about the babysitter putting our children to sleep at home. My daughter, almost three, is used to the babysitter, but my son isn’t and I picture him screaming—little nose scrunched up, red cheeks tear-stained. My breasts ache, full of milk. Soon I’ll have to find an empty room in their large house and pump. I’m not looking forward to this—we’ll have to ask the bride’s father or mother which room would be best, and I don’t want to bother them with such personal, bodily matters. It’s embarrassing. But if I don’t pump, my milk might leak in uncontrollable dribbles, soaking through the breast pads affixed to the inside of my bra.

After the ceremony, a sense of relief washes over everyone, as if during we were secretly holding our breath in anticipation of someone faltering or saying the wrong thing, even something as dramatic as the bride not appearing. But none of this happened. The worst of it was the bride’s father’s overly maudlin speech about his own dead father. Violent tears overwhelmed the bride’s mother as she spoke of love in the face of adversity, the importance of a solid foundation, how a strong marriage is a lighthouse in the middle of a storm. But the family’s florid happiness reverberates through all of us. The bride and groom look like celebrities, her hair in auburn waves cascading down the front of her opalescent beaded dress, he in a tuxedo with a crisp white bowtie as they deftly pose for the cadre of photographers, who follow them around, silent as cats, stealing the flicker of each moment on film. I wonder if this is the aim of weddings now: the experience of celebrity.

Before the ceremony, I accidentally found the groom sitting at a large mahogany desk in a room tucked under the staircase. He sipped from a silver flask, contemplating his cufflinks, his gaze blank. I wondered what he was thinking about as I backed out of the room before he could see me. A long-lost lover? Doubts over marrying into this wealthy close-knit family? His too-tight shoes? If his vows would sound authentic and affecting enough? I remember his glazed-over eyes, sedate, reflective.

At the end of the long, curving receiving line, the bride and groom greet each guest. Just watching them graciously nod and accept the weight of all the good wishes makes me tired. We slowly rise from the white wood folding chairs. My husband suggests we grab a drink and mingle. Or pretend to mingle. He knows some people here who are also in the entertainment industry, producers and agents and managers. There’s a lot of patting on the back and comparing table numbers. We comment on the length of the receiving line, as if this exempts us from having to stand in it.

“The rosemary sprigs are a nice touch,” someone says.

“And the oranges piled high in the earthenware bowls,” another woman adds, “remind me of Tuscany.”

We all agree on this point. We discuss the beauty of the bride, and how her younger sister, fresh out of college, seemed on the verge of hysterical laughter during the ceremony.

“Maybe she’s on drugs,” someone offers.

“I saw her once at ten a.m. on a Sunday, at the grocery store.” A man in a silk purple tie, a talent manager, says. “She looked rough.”

“What do you mean by rough?” I ask, glancing down. The grease stain is still there. I cross my arms over my chest.

“You know,” the talent manager says. “Smeared mascara, swollen eyes, clearly wearing the same clothes from the night before.”

He sips his gin and tonic, and the ice cubes clink together in the squat glass.

“When I said hello, she just looked at me and laughed. For a really long time. It was weird.”

“Weird,” a woman echoes.

My lower-back aches and my feet hurt. The three months of constant sleep deprivation seeps into my bones, my eyes, my skin. I feel as if my face might fall off and everyone standing here will watch, in frozen horror. First my nose, then my mouth, then my eyebrows will come undone, until there’s nothing left but blood and bone.

A few people drift away from our makeshift circle to find others and a couple I recognize approaches us. The girl wears an odd one-piece pantsuit, each leg billowing out in ice-blue silk. I think she works in fashion. She always stands too close to me, so that I can see every detail of her face: the broken capillaries around her nose, the berry-colored lip-liner evident underneath her shiny lipgloss, the stray stubborn hair she has forgotten to pluck under her chin. She once said, without a hint of irony, that her upbringing had been exceptional because her parents often took her to the Philharmonic on Sundays, that her special thinking place had always been the cool marble halls of the Met a few blocks away from her parents’ townhouse in the upper Eighties. When I last saw her, she bemoaned the fact that she and her husband were living in Hancock Park.

“I miss the city, you know?” she said, her pale skin and long dark hair making her appear even more forlorn and girlish.

They are almost upon us, wading through the wedding crowd, smiling expectantly. Her husband gestures to my husband with a half-hearted wave.

“Ahoy,” he says.

I grip my husband’s arm. “I have to pump.”

Why the room is called the Frida Kahlo room remains unclear. Maybe it’s the terracotta walls, or the tall glass vases, a deep cerulean blue, which lend the surroundings an artistic bent. And there is the family history. In the 1930s, the bride’s grandmother ran away from home in Chicago to Mexico City to paint. She lived among artists and exiles and might have known Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo. Eventually, her father retrieved her.

When I came into the room, I checked myself out in the oblong mirror on the back of the closet door. Still slim, with a long neck, defined shoulders, but youth—that intangible suppleness—has evaporated into the ether. On the inside, I feel just as young as the young people here, presentable and convincing in their suits and ties, mimicking adulthood while holding their drinks the right distance away from their bodies, but when I discover how old they are—twenty-two, or twenty-six—I realize there is at least a decade of difference between us. Then my age, thirty-seven, and all that comes with it—the encroaching shadows of marital disappointment, a few bad financial decisions along the way, a faltering writing career, the yawning afternoons spent taking the children to and from the park, the infinite granules of dirty sand from our shoes that then sprinkle all over the living room floor, the inability to finish a sentence without interruption or complete a thought without it fragmenting and shattering into multiples of its initial form, that missing slipper, glittery red and lost somewhere, which still causes my daughter great distress—settles down on me like a stone and I feel spent, washed up on the shoreline, wishing someone would toss me back into the wide open sea.

I lie on the twin bed in the corner, which is covered with an embroidered bedspread on which flowers bloom and curve into ornate arabesques of stitching. From the bed, I notice the desk beneath the open window; a writing desk, meant for correspondence, for opening letters with a heavy letter knife and affixing stamps on personalized embossed stationary. Yes, we would be happy to attend the christening of baby William. The luncheon on the 14th of June sounds splendid.

A deep sense of nostalgia vibrates through me for a time I never knew. Yet I imagine myself sitting at that desk in leather pumps and a full skirt cinched at the waist, diligently composing replies in a fine cursive hand, taking my time to find just the right words to convey my regret that we are unable to attend so-and-so’s birthday fete. There were rules back then, and if you broke them, at least you knew you were breaking them. Now, there are no rules, for anything. Wife, mother, mistress: it’s all gray and murky. Each person must figure it out for herself.

Voices travel up the jasmine trellises, filtering through the open window. Wine, laughter, a smattering of applause. The room darkens and I feel sleepy, lethargic. I don’t see the point of mingling and stuffing more fried balls of breaded goat cheese into my mouth. I know I should set up the breast pump and get on with it, but I only want to lay my head down on the small crisp pillow, close my eyes, and let my mind drift, without purpose. I haven’t been able to do such a thing in months. Years. Children.

Children are the reason our couch is covered in every possible bodily fluid—breast milk, coffee, urine, cum, spit up. Yes, cum because we have nowhere else to have sex. Upstairs, the new baby naps in our bedroom and our daughter inhabits the second one. So downstairs, on the cream couch that has now turned disconcertingly beige, is where everything occurs, from breastfeeding to fucking. And the children—especially the second child—are why my bellybutton is distended, or, to use the medical term, herniated. It looks strikingly similar to my son’s miniature baby penis, a layered nub of flesh protruding from my stomach. And my body is covered in green-yellowish bruises—not just the ugly one on my shin, but a smattering dotting my outer thigh—from crashing into the sharp corner of the dresser in the middle of the night as I stumble to retrieve my crying son. If I don’t pick him up quickly enough, his wailing will wake my daughter, and then there will be two children screaming at the little owl nightlight, which emanates a phosphorescent blue glow meant to soothe.

Kinder, Kuche, Kirche, und Heim macht kein ganzes Leben allein. When our friend, a documentary filmmaker, said this teasingly in German, it sounded even more sinister and reflective of my actual life than the English translation: “Children, kitchen, home, and stove aren't worth a whole life."

Grudgingly, I plug the breast pump into the wall near the bed, unzip my dress, and put on the special hands-free pump bra, marketed as the “easy expression bustier,” which has two little slits where my nipples emerge. I affix a funnel to each nipple, attach a little plastic bottle to each funnel, and turn on the pump. Slumping back into the pillow, which is propped up against the wall, I close my eyes again, listening to that familiar, slightly nauseating pumping noise, the low-grade mechanized grind that works at a steady yet maddening pace to extract milk from each breast.

The bottles fill up with rich yellowish milk. I let my mind wander again, my palms resting over my abdomen, like in yoga, at the end, when you pretend to die. In the window, the sky has deepened into a purplish-blue, a crescent moon visible through the spidery branches of a lemon tree. I hear women laughing, men talking in that jousting manner. The clink of wineglasses. For a moment, I worry that I’ve been gone too long but then I’m reassured by imagining my husband sitting comfortably with a fellow producer, discussing people I don’t know. It would be boring anyway, if I was there. Struggling to follow the conversation, half in it, half out of it.

This time last year, early September, I was newly pregnant with my son, not telling anyone yet. It was intensely hot, as it often is in the fall, when the brush fires start and ash fills the air, and I received an unexpected email from an old lover. He was coming to town and wanted to see me. In his usual flippant tone, as if he only thought in jazz standards from the 40s, he wrote: Show me the town let’s paint it red! Where and when? You name it. I can’t wait. It was our language, that snappy breezy phrasing that I had come to believe contained a deeper hidden meaning, full of real feelings, underneath its implacable surface. He didn’t explain why he was in town from London, just that he wanted to see me. It had been ten years.

We met for lunch in Venice, not far from my house. I chose an outfit that was flattering but would not reveal how much thought I’d put into the occasion: jeans, a sleeveless white silk blouse that fluttered in the wind, expensive sunglasses, soft leather Italian sandals with a considerable heel. He had done the same: dark jeans, a sky-blue button down shirt with the first two buttons left open, loafers without soaks. When he spotted me waiting outside the restaurant he was effusive, overly so, and hugged me close. The buttons of his shirt pressed against my chest as he murmured into my hair, .

“You look fabulous. Where have you been all my life?”

Of course, it was a ridiculous question since we both knew where I had been—here, in Los Angeles—and we both knew why I wasn’t with him anymore.

I had been living in London, unhappy in my first marriage, when I first met him at the small publishing house where we both worked as editorial assistants. At twenty-seven, I was incredibly susceptible to the way he moved and spoke and flattered everyone with an effortless ease, as if it came naturally to him, and maybe it did. He charmed everyone, and he was charming. I remember his white linen shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, the fine golden hair that covered his arms glinting in the sun. When he explained something to me, he moved in close, his full mouth inches from mine, so that I inhaled the French cigarettes he smoked, the espressos he drank, the linden blossom soap emanating off of his freshly showered skin. He only had to hold out his hand one summer evening, as the streetlamps were flickering on, and say with just enough conviction, “Come with me.”

Simply, easily, I fell in love with him and with all his intractable details. Riding on the back of his Vespa, speeding past Hyde Park, whispering into his ear, my lips running over the downiness of his earlobe, the dusted sugar from the Turkish Delights we liked to devour still on my tongue. In his vast apartment full of echoes, we listened to Chet Baker and drank red wine and sat on the kitchen countertop eating fresh figs, our bare feet swinging beneath us. I remember thinking it both ironic and poignant when he proclaimed that he never wanted to be one of those tan old men who reclined on a well-manicured beach somewhere in the Côte d’Azur, staring hungrily at all the lithe nimble bodies basking in the sun and diving into the aquamarine waters, while he morbidly watched on, his saliva dribbling into the yogurt he was supposed to eat. It was something my husband at the time would never say—or worse, he would never even think of it—an awareness of our mortality, that this golden youth wouldn’t last forever, that we were all doomed, just because. I ate it up, his romantic brooding and fitful moods, his changeable nature, so hard to predict that he always kept me fantastically dangling, my chest exploding with longing, thinking, now this is a real love affair. And this is how I’m supposed to feel: shitty, desperate, euphoric.

He liked to quote Marlowe, in a singsong kind of way, Come live with me and be my love, and when I protested that he couldn’t possibly mean it, even though deep down I hoped against hope that he did, he murmured into my hair, Why not? It would be so much fun.

So an idea of our life together began to emerge. I knew it was false and yet the images took hold. Reading the paper all Sunday morning, the scent of strong coffee permeating the sheets, poetry books lying open on the dining table, the sound of his melodious voice as he switched effortlessly between French and English while talking on the phone with his mother, who called often.

It lasted barely a summer, a couple months, long enough to destroy a marriage when, inevitably, my husband discovered an email, a sonnet I tried to write but never had the courage to send, so it sat there, waiting to be read by the wrong person. And it was. And then, after I had stepped out of my old life to start a new one with him, my lover evaporated, as if his heart’s secret drawbridge had suddenly snapped shut. After a week of unreturned texts, emails and phone calls, I finally went to his apartment. He answered the door wearing a white muslin kurta, his eyes glazed over, the piercing, melancholy sound of classical Spanish guitar from Tarrega’s Recourdos de la Alhambra reverberated in the background. Flickering votive candles graced the low glass coffee table. French doors to a small balcony were thrown open, revealing a dark, humid night.

His explanation for his disappearance was jumbled, half-apologetic. Something about feeling depressed and trapped, how he couldn’t bear to see anyone in his state. He wanted me to wait for him to “come round again,” suggesting an acceptable pattern of appearance and disappearance, as if he was a migratory bird I would only be able to see at certain points in the season. He searched my face, thinking I would agree to this part-time relationship, that I was naïve, or desperate enough to consider it. He thought that I didn’t see the brutal truth of our situation, which in fact, I hadn’t until then: how highly unique he was to me, and how much I cherished this uniqueness, as if he was a precious gem I held tightly in the palm of my hand, too afraid to even look at it for fear of losing such a beautiful thing, whereas to him, I was not unique at all. I was one of the many young women he had momentarily loved and been loved by. A whole sack of precious gems rattled around in his pocket, offering a pleasing jangle whenever he felt like listening. At any moment he could take one out and admire it.

I left him standing in the middle of his living room, barefoot in his white robe, his Moroccan cushions spread about the floor, his dates in their bowls, his incense burning. In the street, I hailed a cab in the rain. Before opening the car door, I looked up. The lights were still on in his flat, a golden yellow. I held my breath, wondering if he would appear at the window, his faint form visible for just a moment. But he didn’t and I quickly slid into the cab and slammed the door. Central London flitted by. Piccadilly. Charring Cross Road. It was late, close to eleven. How hollow and vast the city appeared after the end of something. Rain fell, streaking the window with a delicate pattern, like the footprints of a baby bird.

All of this is history, of course, but in those split seconds when we embraced, past became present, roaring back, rushing and urgent, an angry ocean engulfing me. I struggled and panted for air, my mouth full of salt water.

He released me and our arms fell limply to our sides.

“How’ve you been?” His eyes smiled behind his sunglasses.

“Good,” I managed. “Really good, actually. You?”

He took off his sunglasses and hooked them to the front of his shirt, running a hand through his hair.

“Really well, thanks.”

I gazed into his face and decided he hadn’t aged: the same berry-colored lips, watery blue-eyes, olive skin. Maybe there were a few fine lines around his eyes when he squinted into the sun, but otherwise, he was the same.

“Shall we?”

He motioned to the restaurant. Then he touched my bare shoulder, and my heart crashed around in my chest, a frantic, trapped bird.

We sat outside, on the back patio, under the shade of an umbrella. The warm dry wind made me feel relaxed, luxuriant, as if we were on vacation. It reminded me of how he used to say, when we were together, that with me he always felt as if he was on holiday. I thought it a compliment then, but now I see how it could also mean other, less desirable, things. Over creamy burrata and heirloom tomatoes and crusty bread soaked in peppery olive oil, we talked about the last ten years. He lived in a well-appointed Kensington townhouse with his beautiful Italian architect wife, who was currently designing a private residence in South Africa. They had children, and he was both with and not with his wife, an arrangement that suited him perfectly. The ever-questing paramour refusing to settle, and yet he was settled, in a way.

He ordered a glass of white wine, and asked if I wanted one too, his eyes all laughter. I declined, happy the secret of my new pregnancy was mine to keep, mine alone, something he couldn’t touch. I asked who was looking after his children with his wife gone, and quickly, almost automatically, he showed me a photograph on his iPhone: two blond boys brandishing tree branches in front of a villa somewhere in southern Europe. Then I showed him a photograph of my daughter in a white dress, running and laughing, holding a ball out in front of her. We talked about raising children, the importance of remaining flexible and the importance of letting go. Then he told me about his Internet news website, about to be purchased by a powerful media company.

While we talked, an ineffable golden veil fell over us, a shimmering concentrated feeling modulating and informing our movements, our words, the way we glanced at each other over the rims of our glasses, softening the surroundings to such a degree that I felt as if I was gliding through water, my fingers skimming the soft sandy bottom of an ocean floor. A thrilling momentary reprieve from the unending series of chores of the day-to-day. When I completed one task, another one immediately replaced it: buy dog food, prepare my daughter’s dinner, grade papers, floss, clean the high chair, change the pillowcases. Chop wood, carry water, I called it. But here I was, resplendent in my white silk blouse, carrying another child within me and enjoying the company of an old lover, the late afternoon sun hitting the back of my neck, loosening my bones, loosening the fastidious iron grip of daily life.

He stopped short. “How is it, with Ben?”

I brought the tips of my fingers together and smiled. “Good.”

He scooted his chair closer to the table and crossed one leg over the other.

“But how are things really?”

“Things are actually really good,” I said, without a hint of hesitation or wistfulness. Because it was true. “He’s my best friend—I know it sounds like a cliché, but that’s how things are with us. We talk about everything—every little thing. All the time.”

“Hmm,” he said, his eyes still smiling, but less so.

“What about Cienna?” I asked. “How is she?”

When I had first heard the name of the woman he married, it angered me. It sounded like rich expensive chocolate, rare and impossible to find. He inhaled deeply.

“On and off. And we don’t talk. When she wants to talk—” He said this with a sneer. “—And bring up a complaint from the ongoing list complaints, I just say ‘Right then,’ and leave.”

“For how long?”

“Don’t know. Depends. A day. A month. Whichever.”

I tried to keep the edge out of my voice, but it was there.

“And how’s that working out for you?”

He laughed and shook his head. “I’ve really missed you, you know that?”

“What now?” He asked excitedly after lunch.

Before I could explain—I had to get home and relieve the babysitter, wake my daughter from her afternoon nap, the dog needed walking, and the plumber was coming to fix the downstairs toilet that was overflowing, yet again—he took my arm.

“Let’s swim! Run into the sea and back out again. Cocktails afterwards.”

For a moment, I pictured myself sitting on the balcony of his hotel room, my body coated with salt water, a highball in one hand, a thick fluffy towel wrapped around my waist, the continuation of this golden afternoon bleeding into evening. But what I’d be risking for one errant afternoon of pleasure seared through me, an insurmountable, unquantifiable loss: my daughter’s sleepy face in the early morning light, her dark curls tangled on the pillow, my husband handing me a cappuccino, foamy milk spilling over the rim, our fingers touching for a moment, the look he throws me before our daughter distracts us. I’m so tired. I love you. And then, as he pads down the stairs, taking our daughter in his arms, asking in a deep resonant voice, mockingly operatic, “What do you want for breakfast?”

I hear, from upstairs as I’m splashing water on my face, his singing, her laughing.

My old lover gently punched my arm.

“Hey—it’s not like I’m asking you to run away with me.” He drew a breath, cocking his head to the side. “But that does sound appealing, doesn’t it?”

“It’s getting late,” I said.

He shrugged, jamming his hands into his pockets.

On the walk back to the car, we passed two girls sprawled over the hood of a vintage mustang, a white screen rippling behind them. The photographer instructed them to look sleepy and the young girls smiled, their eyelashes fluttering open and closed.

“I’m down there.” I motioned to the little side street where my car was parked. We strolled under jacaranda trees, wading through lavender petals. Lush foliage spilled over low garden walls, stalks of bougainvillea sprouting, almost aggressively, between fences. For a moment, in the shade of the trees and the quiet, I felt my body soften, and nearly relent to the truant afternoon he was proposing. He drew me closer, feeling this too. I stopped short and faced him. Over his shoulder I saw my car, a few feet away.

“Goodbye,” I said, and kissed him first on one cheek and then the other. He cupped the back of my neck with his open palm, and turned his face towards mine, to catch my mouth in his. If I had failed to withdraw at that exact moment, the second kiss on his cheek would have bloomed into a real kiss.

I stepped back.

“Goodbye,” I said again.

As I was driving away, I glanced at the rearview mirror. He kicked his nice loafer into a brick wall and yelled something, lost in the wind.

After I finish pumping, I collect the little bottles of milk in a small drawstring canvas bag. In the kitchen, I stash the bag on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator behind the white wine. Glancing around, I feel self-conscious, storing my breast milk in the fridge, but the catering staff is too busy arranging mint leaves around platters of glistening fruit to notice me. The kitchen leads out to the veranda, which overlooks the backyard. I pause there, leaning over the wrought iron balustrade, trying to find my husband. Paper lanterns, dangling from the lemon trees, sway and float in the breeze, giving off a dim golden glow. Night has descended and little votive candles flicker in rows on each long table. The Spanish guitarists, arranged in a semicircle next to the lit up blue pool, are taking a break, sipping beer from brown glass bottles. Dinner has been served and people are helping themselves to grilled salmon, cuts of steak—ruby red in the middle—arugula salad with walnuts and ricotta shards.

The bride and groom drift elegantly from one table to the next, mingling with their guests. I glance down at my dress. The stain is still there, a ragged little mark a gradation darker than the rest of the blue.

About to make my way down the steps, out of the corner of my eye, I notice the actress from the 80s leaning against the far wall, texting furiously. Her husband sits a few feet away in one of the patio chairs, slumped over his drink, staring at her in muted anger. He takes a sip of his drink, and then shakes his head, as if his circumstances are darkly humorous.

“What?” The actress barks out.

My back stiffens, and I fear she’s calling me out for half-spying on them, but then her husband raises his drink in the air.

“Do you have to text him? Now? I can’t fucking believe this.”

She frowns and returns to the screen’s glow, which bathes her face, hard as stone, in its white light.

I walk quickly down the steps, not wanting to witness any more. The tense moment vibrates in my mind, intoxicating, as if I have watched a relationship deconstruct scene by scene. I see my husband speaking with a group of people at the end of a table. He appears content, one leg languidly crossed over the other. When he sees me, his face lights up and he raises a glass in my direction. I smile back. People have since started dancing to an old song from the fifties, the kind of rhythm your body can’t refuse. I motion for him to join me at the edge of the makeshift dance floor. An older man sips his coffee and watches his wife, a matronly woman, shimmying to the music in her bare feet. The backs of her pumps dangle from his thumb.

The music has changed to The Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” one of everyone’s favorites. My husband envelops me, murmuring into my hair.

“I missed you, where have you been? Let’s dance.”

He twirls and spins me out, brings me close again. Our bodies jostle against one another before he rolls me back out. He bumps into a small Asian woman without even noticing. My husband always does this when he dances, loses all sense of his limbs in space, but it’s okay. I find it cringingly charming. I hug him, burying my nose in his damp neck, inhaling his particular scent: aftershave, Dove soap, a trace of coconut.

The clear piercing ring of a spoon against crystal indicates that the cake is about to be cut. We migrate towards that pure ringing. The wedding couple stands behind flickering candles affixed to a tower of profiteroles that looks as if it could topple any minute, a chocolate pyramid of sugar and air. After the ceremonious slice of the knife through the custard puffs, the bride and groom feed each other small careful bites, laughing nervously as their faces are illuminated by white camera flashes.

My husband pulls me close enough to fuse our torsos into one. His warm hand curves over my hip. From the babysitter’s recent text, we know the children are sleeping. We have this night together, until tomorrow morning, when we’re hung over, stumbling through the house in our underwear, making coffee, spreading peanut butter on bread, trying to talk over the rising cacophony of the children’s toys—the drums and the shakers and the xylophone, the whirling sound of the fake miniature vacuum cleaner—and telling our daughter to please not wipe her hands, sticky with jam, on the couch, that insufferable couch. Through the window, an errant squirrel might leap from one hedge to another, causing the dog to bark viciously, which will startle the baby, and make him shriek. Our daughter will cup her palms over her ears, muttering, “Too loud. Too loud.”

And we will sit down at the wooden table ringed with water stains from a long history of misplaced coffee cups and eat breakfast.