On the page, that is.
Say all you want about “alpha” and “beta” males, but bottom line: if you want to make your heroes come to life, you have to do more than just scratch the surface of their characters with a frown, or a grimace, or a curl of the lip.
At the right time, for the right reason, maybe they need to shed a tear or two.
They're only human, right? Particularly when their marriages are breaking up, and they suddenly realize they can lose all they've taken what they hold most dearly for granted: their wives, their children, their homes.
Harry pulls off his Bluetooth 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
enough 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
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 Corrigan’s
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.”
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, too. He and my 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 seen to
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, some day, 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 good-byes. And the next time we meet, be it in
the carpool line, or at a school function, or 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? In fact, 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 trade-offs 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’ 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 for anything that will sop up this mess that is now his
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 Height’s mommy grapevine soon enough. I mean, if you plan on sticking
“I am, for sure. I’m not going
anywhere.” The lines on Harry’s face once again realign 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.” With this, his eyes get moist again. This time, though, he shrugs, then
passes a broad palm over them. I assume that he’s decided that the Handi Wipes
give off 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
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.