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Chapter 1

“Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man
is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.”

—Zsa Zsa Gabor

HALLOWEEEN

Thursday, 7: 32 p.m. “You know how I hate to gossip, but…”

That is how Brooke Bartholomew always begins before she launches into a piece of hearsay. She knows and I know (for that matter, everyone knows) that she is the most notorious gossipmonger in our gated community of Paradise Heights.

So, yes, this will be juicy.

“Don’t be such a tease,” I answer. “Just spill it.”

“It’s about DeeDee and Harry Wilder,” she whispers. “They’ve split up. For good!”

Her tone has me looking around to see if the leads in Brooke’s drama are within hearing distance. But it’s hard to tell because it is dark, and everyone, even the adults, is in costume. Witches, Harry Potters, Shreks, and vampires zigzag across Bougainvillea Boulevard, lugging king-size 300-count pima cotton pillowcases filled with all kinds of individually wrapped miniature candy bars. For Brooke, it is not just Halloween but Christmas too: her husband, Benjamin, is Paradise Heights’s dentist and will reap what Hershey’s has sown.

I check to see that my daughter, Olivia, is out of earshot but still within sight. To my chagrin, she and her posse of five-year-olds are racing up the circular staircase of the Hendricksons’ New Orleans‑style McMansion. All the girls are dressed as fairies, which in HalloweeSpeak translates into gossamer wings and long tulle skirts over leotards. It is inevitable that one of them will slip, fall, and cry, so I cannot take my eyes off them, even to gauge the veracity of Brooke’s raw data. For the first time tonight I notice that Temple, DeeDee and Harry’s youngest, is not one of the winged creatures flittering in the crush in front of me.

The nickname given the Wilders by my very own clique, the board of the Paradise Heights Women’s League, comes to mind: the Perfect Couple. Until now, it fit like a glove. Both DeeDee and Harry are tall, golden, patrician, and aloof. They are Barbie and Ken dolls come to life. Rounding out the family is their thirteen-year-old son, Jake, the star of the Paradise Heights Middle School basketball team. Our oldest boy, Tanner, is part of his entourage, as is Brooke’s son, Marcus. Temple is exactly Olivia’s age. With those gilt coiling ringlets and that dimpled smile, Temple is not just the kindergarten set’s unabashed leader but beautiful as well, which is why all the other little girls aspire to be her.

While the Wilders seem friendly enough during the social gatherings that put them in close proximity to the rest of us mere mortals, they never engage, let alone mingle. In Harry’s case, I presume he thinks his real life—that is, his office life—is too foreign for us to grasp: he is a senior partner in the international securities division of a large law firm, where every deal trails a long tail of zeros. But DeeDee has no such excuse. She doesn’t work, yet she pointedly ignores our invitations to lunch, preferring to spend the precious hours between school drop-off and pickup gliding through the posh little shops on Paradise Heights’s bustling Main Street. Heck, even the Heights’ working mommies try harder to fit in. The overflow crowd at the Women’s League Christmas party is proof of that, as are the numerous corporate sponsorships they secure for the school district’s annual golf tournament fund-raiser.

Proving yet again that mommy guilt is the greatest of all human motivators.

And now that the Wilders’ crisis has been exposed to the masses, DeeDee’s force field will stay up permanently, for sure.

“No way! The Wilders?” I say to Brooke. “Why, I just saw them together last weekend, at the club. He didn’t leave her side even once. And I know for a fact that DeeDee was at the school yesterday, for the Halloween costume contest.” Although I wasn’t there, Ted, my husband, mentioned seeing her. I stayed home with our younger son, Mickey, who has a nasty case of head lice, the scourge of the elementary school set. Not fun at any time, but doubly distressing to a nine-year-old boy on a day in which all class work is suspended in honor of a candy orgy.

To get his mind off what he was missing, Mickey and I spent the morning carving two more pumpkins to join the family of five already displayed on our steps and spraying a spiderweb of Silly String on the porch banister. Ted, who is too fastidious to have appreciated our haphazard handiwork, has elicited promises from us both that all of this sticky substance will be pulled off first thing tomorrow morning, before it has time to erode the nice new paint job on our faux-Victorian.

Now, as I keep watch over Olivia’s raid on the neighbors’ candy stashes, Ted is at home with Mickey, parsimoniously doling out mini Mounds bars. Despite having purchased forty bags of the stuff, neither of us will be surprised if we run out long before the last trick-or-treater has come and gone. That is the downside to having a house that is smack-dab in the middle of Bougainvillea Boulevard, where all things pertaining to Paradise Heights begin and end. Because of this, poor Mickey will have to share whatever goodies Tanner and Olivia bring home. I don’t look forward to the fight that breaks out over who gets the Godiva candy bar and who is left with the smashed caramel apple.

“Yeah, well, apparently it happened yesterday morning. From what I heard, he came home early from work so that he wouldn’t miss the Halloween parade—and found her in bed with another man.” Brooke waves her little hellion, Benjamin Jr., on toward his older brother, Marcus, who has been trying all night to ditch the kid. Having been an only child, Brooke cannot accept the notion that a thirteen-year-old wouldn’t want to hang with his only sibling, especially one seven years his junior.

Frankly, I think all of Brooke’s energy would have been better spent on some therapy over her own traumas. “My god! That’s horrible! Do you think it’s for real?”

“Who knows? For that matter, who cares?” Brooke arches a cleanly plucked brow. “Anyway that’s the rumor, and it’s too good not to be true, so I’m sticking with it. Besides, Colleen was behind Harry in line at Starbucks. She overheard him bickering with DeeDee on his cell. Seems she’s asked for a divorce, but he’s fighting her for everything: the kids, the house—even the dog! In fact, he also told one of his partners that he planned back cut back his hours at work to prove he should be the one to get full custody. Look, I say ’where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’”

And they say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Bullshit. What guy wouldn’t go for the throat, particularly one who’s just been made a laughingstock in the neighborhood?

Frankly, I can’t really blame him, since I’d do exactly the same thing. Still, I wonder what he’ll do if he does get it all. I’m of the theory that househusbands are born, not made. And they are certainly not made from high-powered corporate attorneys like Harry Wilder, who live for the thrill of the deal.

But I don’t say this to Brooke, who wears her sistah solidarity on her silk Cavalli sleeve. If what she says is true, then there is no reason to feel sorry for DeeDee in the first place. Harry is the one we should pity, since he has no idea what he’s in for. I’m willing to bet he’ll reconsider his stance the first time Jake needs to be carpooled to basketball at the same time Temple has to be at ballet and it’s not until they are halfway there that she tells him she’s forgotten her tights.

“So, who is DeeDee’s boyfriend?”

Frustrated because her reconnaissance is incomplete in this one very important area, Brooke’s perfect moue of a mouth turns down at the sides. This is what passes for a frown when your social calendar revolves around standing appointments for Botox and collagen injections. “Since neither of them is talking, your guess is as good as mine. But don’t worry, I’ve got my spies working on it.” She winks broadly.

That trail might be cold right now, but she is a good enough gossip hound that I’ve no doubt we’ll know the answer by the end of the week.

As we pass DeeDee and Harry’s authentic-looking Tuscan villa, I notice that all the lights are off and the bougainvillea-wrapped wrought-iron gates are locked. The Wilders did not even leave out the requisite consolation: a plastic pumpkin filled with candy and sporting a sign that begs visitors to Take Just One and Leave The Rest for Others.

Once again, Brooke is right: there is trouble in Paradise Heights.

Chapter 2

“The great question…which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is `What does a woman want?’”

—Sigmund Freud

Friday, 1 November, 11:08 a.m. As of lunchtime today, Mickey’s head has a clean bill of health. Not a louse in sight. Monday he’s back in school.

To celebrate—and to rid ourselves of the cabin fever we’re experiencing—Mickey and I sneak out with our Labrador, Harvey, to Paradise Park while school is still in session. I figure this is okay, since there will be no one there to infect anyway.

I’m wrong. Little Temple Wilder is playing alone on the swing set. Even before we are spotted, we can hear her plaintive plea: “Daddy, you said you’d push me! Please? PRETTY PLEASE, WITH SUGAR AND WHIPPED CREAM AND SPRINKLES ON TOP?”

Harry, the sleeves of his crisp oxford button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, is mumbling authoritatively into his Bluetooth headset. Sunlight brings to life the glints of gold in his gently tousled hair. He places a fingertip to his lips in the hope of willing her into silence, but Temple isn’t buying it. Patience is a virtue rarely found in five-year-olds.

Spotting us, he gives me a look that promises the world if I can guarantee him a few minutes of her silence, not to mention that of their Airedale puppy, Lucky, who’s barking at Harvey. Harry is a novice when it comes to negotiating with a mommy who has been housebound with an antsy boy for almost a week. But knowing his plight and feeling his pain, I give Temple a push that sends her giggling skyward, and then I do the same for my son. Harry bows in gratitude.

A half-hour later, Harry pulls off his headset for good to find Temple and my son playing nicely together on the climbing gym. Mickey has gotten over his wariness of girl cooties (imaginary), and Temple is reassured that Mickey’s cooties (real, but gone) won’t be invading her full head of sun-kissed sateen curls. All is right in the world.

Harry smiles his unabashed gratitude. “Sorry. East Coast,” he says, by way of explanation. “Had to catch those guys before they go home for the day.”

I nod understandingly, and then stick out my hand. “Lyssa Harper. We’ve met before.”

Vagueness clouds his eyes. “Sure, I remember. You’re the Stuckeys’ au pair, right?”

I don’t know whether to be flattered or miffed. True, both the au pair and I have long dark hair, although mine is somewhat curlier. Okay, make that frizzy. And yes, it strokes my ego to be compared to a mere woman-child some ten years younger (not to mention ten pounds lighter). It’s more likely that he’s suggesting that I don’t seem worthy to live in Paradise Heights—unless I’m in someone’s domestic employ.

Only in my wildest fantasies would I assume that this is his way of hitting on me. Still, the thought of being picked up on the playground by the neighborhood DILF (the dad I’d like to—well, you get the picture) does give me a cheap thrill.

Then it hits me: what if he’s asking because he thinks he can buy my services, which would leave the Stuckeys high and dry? Ouch! And those twins of theirs are a handful….

Gee, I wonder how much he’s offering, anyway?

Turns out he’s not offering at all. He just doesn’t remember meeting Ted and me at the Crawleys’ Christmas party last year. Or sharing a picnic table with us this past summer at the Paradise Heights annual July Fourth picnic. Or that we were the ones who found Lucky after he escaped under their fence in order to chase after the Corrigans’ tabby.

My God, as oblivious as this guy is, I’m surprised he remembers his way home.

Then again, maybe he doesn’t. That might be why DeeDee had an affair in the first place.

“Um…no. I’m just a mom here in the Heights.”

As my black-and-white image of the Wilders gradates to chiaroscuro in the harsh light of reality, Harry tries to make amends for forgetting how many times our paths have crossed by complimenting me on how well my son plays with Temple.

Now it’s my turn to blush. I’m not used to hearing compliments about Mickey from other parents, only pointed remarks about how much more “rambunctious” he is than their own perfect progeny. “Thanks,” I stammer, then add, “I think his patience comes from having a younger sister.”

“Oh yeah? My son isn’t half that great with Temple. Of course, he’s somewhat older, a teenager.” He gives a conciliatory laugh. “You know how they are.”

“I know your son.” Surprised, he blinks, then leans away slightly. He seems wary of what I might say next, so I continue gently, “Jake, right? He’s a sweet boy. He and my other son, Tanner, play together on the basketball team. Very few of Tanner’s friends let Mickey join in when they come over to shoot hoops. You know how they can be: snubbing kids who are younger, or not as well coordinated. But Jake doesn’t seem to mind.”

Harry nods uncertainly. “Well, I’m glad to hear he’s not so—so judgmental all the time.”

“I never thought of it that way. I just think some kids instinctively know what to do with younger children.” Upon hearing this, Harry frowns. Quickly I add, “I’m not saying that that’s a good thing or a bad thing. In fact, I think it shows that someday, they’ll make pretty good parents.”

Harry stares off in stony silence. As we sit quietly, I wonder what I’ve said wrong.

On the other hand, what does it matter? It’s my guess that he will forget our conversation the minute we gather up the kids and say our awkward goodbyes. And the next time we meet, be it in the carpool line or at a school function or at a neighbor’s party, he’ll vaguely wonder what the Stuckeys’ au pair has done with the usually caterwauling twins.

Right then and there I make up my mind that that is not going to happen, that I’m going to make a big enough impression on him that my name will finally be emblazoned on his brain, or at the very least that I crack his typically icy demeanor just this once.

Suddenly I remember another thing we have in common: our daughters.

“So, you’ve decided to give Temple a day off from school? My daughter, Olivia, is in preschool with Temple. Every now and then I let her do that too. Kindergarten can be so overwhelming for little kids, even with a year or two of preschool under their belts. It’s not like they’re missing calculus or anything really important, right? And the tradeoffs are some wonderful memories. To be honest, though, I hate when it’s called ’quality time,’ don’t you? I mean, every second with your child is memorable. Even watching them while they sleep is precious–”

I’ve been blathering so much I hadn’t noticed that Harry is crying.

The tears roll down his face in two steady lines. He turns his head toward me so that the children don’t see this, but my look of shock must be just as dismaying to him because he ends up burying his face in his hands.

And sobs even harder.

Harry Wilder, captain of industry, neighborhood enigma, one half of Paradise Heights’s Perfect Couple, is now a puddle of mush.

And it’s all my doing.

Out of habit I still carry Handi Wipes. Although they aren’t ideal in situations like this, I can tell that Harry is appreciative of anything that will sop up this mess that is now his life.

When he’s able to face me again, he looks me in the eye. “My wife left me. She’s left us.”

At this point I could feign ignorance, but since we’re both striving for honesty here, I have no desire to muck things up with a polite albeit face-saving (for him) lie, a “Gee! Look how late it’s getting” exit line, and another year or two of polite neighborly oblivion. Instead, I nod and say, “Yeah, I heard. On Halloween. I’m—I’m so sorry about it.”

“You know about it? But I—I haven’t said anything to anyone yet! And she’s—she’s long gone, so I know it didn’t come from her.” He shakes his head at the thought that his personal soap opera is being bandied about the local Starbucks. “Jesus! And I thought news moved fast on Wall Street.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll find out about the Heights’s mommy grapevine soon enough. I mean, if you plan on sticking around—”

“I do, for sure. I’m not going anywhere.” Harry’s face once again realigns into a steely implacability. “This is our home. My kids love it here. We’ll…we’ll work through it somehow.”

“Sure you will,” I murmur reassuringly. “There’s no place like the Heights for raising kids. That’s why we’re all here. Hey listen, really, I didn’t mean to scare you off. You know, about the way we mommies talk and all. It was just such a shock to everyone. The two of you always seemed so—so happy.”

“Yeah. Happy. I thought we were too.” His eyes get moist again. This time, though, he shrugs, then passes a broad palm over them. I assume he’s decided that the Handi Wipes give the wrong impression. “You were right when you said that every minute you spend with your kids is important. And I haven’t been around for most of it.”

Well, of course you weren’t, I want to say. You were out making a living! Bringing home the bacon, playing this millennium’s version of caveman….

And boy oh boy, your stucco palace has all the bells and whistles to prove it.

Too bad you found another Neanderthal in there with your wife.

But I keep my mouth shut. Because you don’t hit a man when he’s down.

Instead, I let him rhapsodize about how things will be from now on, now that he is home to nurture, protect, and defend. He has already asked his partners at his firm to cut him some slack, he tells me stoically. He’ll go into the office just two days a week, and only during the hours that the kids are in school. His partners don’t like the idea, but hey, they need him too badly, so they’ll work around it. Besides he can still juggle things out of his home office, after he takes the kids to school, right? At thirteen, Jake is too old for a nanny—not that Harry would ever consider that in the first place, oh no, no way in hell! That’s all DeeDee would need to hear to make her case for full custody. He and the kids will muddle through together, everyone pitching in to help out. He’ll position it to them as a family adventure….

As for the grocery shopping, or getting Jake to basketball practice, or Temple to her ballet and gym and acting classes, or nursing them when they have fevers, or covering them when their school is out for staff development days—not to mention showing up for parent-teacher conferences—how bad can it be? All it takes is a little planning, some adept scheduling. Heck, it’ll be a cakewalk compared to flying all over the country in order to take meetings and meals with CEOs and CFOs at the Palm in DC, or the River Café in New York, or the Grillroom in Chicago—

You poor, pathetic, misinformed man.

DeeDee certainly fooled you in more ways than one.

I am so tempted to level with him about his new life, to blurt out the truth:

That suburbia is a jungle, filled with lots of vicious creatures.

Gain a few pounds, and the hyenas start giggling behind your back. Don’t volunteer for that field trip, and the silence of those usually sweet-as-lambs mommies who must pick up your slack will be deafening. Forget that it’s your turn to bring the after-game healthy snacks for the Little League team, and you might as well not show up because the other mothers’ tongue-lashing will shred you into human tartare.

And you, Harry Wilder, are nothing but fresh meat. So please, please watch your back.

But what is his alternative? To wallow in fear of the platoon of Pilates-pumped Amazons who commandeer the streets of Paradise Heights in their Lexus LXs or their Benz GLKs, and pray that he doesn’t say or do something so DI (domestically incorrect) that his kids will be ostracized until they leave home for college?

Or perhaps it would be better to seek out the other househusbands in the neighborhood.

I wince at this thought. There are just two of them. Calvin Bullworth is a software geek, and such a hermit that he’s rumored to be a cyberterrorist under house arrest. His wife, Bev Bullworth, is the Heights’s number-one realtor. (Her motto: No Bull, Just Better Service!) Unfortunately, this means that she is always in other people’s houses with strangers, and rarely home with Cal and their two children: Sabrina, who at twelve and a half is already a study in disaffected Goth; and Duke, her ten-year-old brother, who has the sallow demeanor and social skills of his father. The poor kid gets crammed into a lot of school lockers.

And then there is Pete Shriver, the Heights’s househusband extraordinaire: a trust-fund baby—yes, he’s heir to the Shriver Tectonics fortune—he has immersed himself in all things Paradise Heights. As coach of the Paradise Heights Middle School basketball team, he has led the Red Devils to three undefeated seasons straight. At the annual Heights July Fourth Blazin’ Barbecue Cook-Off, his melt-in-your-mouth brisket, prepared on a fifty-four-inch professional Lynx grill, brings home the blue ribbon every time. Under his tutelage, the Paradise Heights communal vegetable garden is shorn not only of errant weeds, but of any members who don’t work their plots prodigiously. And as the editor of the Boulevard Bugle, he ran an editorial on the aesthetic advantages of authentic antique gas lamps versus newer aluminum faux versions. It inspired the community drive that anted up the four thousand dollars needed to cover their additional cost.

Oh, sure, Pete is a dynamo….

Although he’s rumored to be somewhat less energetic in the bedroom, which is perhaps why his wife, Masha—a Russian mail order bride—is the neighborhood slut. And to everyone’s dismay, their thirteen-year-old daughter, Natassia, is rumored to be following in her footsteps.

I don’t have the heart to break the news to Harry about his new band of brothers. Not that he’d believe me anyway. No, it’s best that I ease him into this new world order.

As we round up the dogs and the kids and say our good-byes, I suggest that we make a playdate for Olivia and Temple for next Tuesday. Harry, grateful, promptly says yeah sure, then flips through the agenda on his BlackBerry and thumbs that in, along with my cell-phone number.

He is now officially a househusband.

His next task: file for divorce.

“I’ll never understand why this all happened in the first place,” he murmurs with a shake of his head. “I thought I gave her the life she always wanted. I guess I was wrong.”

(c) 2010 (c) 2017 Josie Brown. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher, Signal Press. (info@signaleditorial.com)


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