“You and I need to talk.”
Diane Willoughby stood, a shadow in the porch light, next to her husband as he unlocked the door. Protected from the elements by the covered porch which connected the house and the two car garage, she thought, ‘This moment, right now, represents a successful and good life.’ She immediately smiled. Her definition of ‘success’ figured prominently in her life since before she could remember. She was never one to shy away from establishing goals, even one as broadly ambitious as ‘Enjoy a successful life’. Diane perceived life, at its most fundamental, as a near endless series of opportunities and obstacles, a lot like a miniature golf course. The starting line and the finishing line were obvious; the obstacles between them were often silly, occasionally quite intimidating, and always a distraction. Of course, like everyone else, the DNA of her expectations were gifts from her parents. From her father, the life-instructions were simple and direct: ‘Winning isn’t everything, …it’s the only thing.’ As is usually the case with wisdom expressed as sports metaphor, this was the kind of advice embraced by the winners and totally non-visible to those not driven to compete. Her mother’s primal gift was a simple, common and durable rune: ‘To fear being a bad mother is the only infallible truth’: At once a curse and a benediction, this crudely potent view of motherhood was extraordinary in that it managed both to encourage, by holding out an un-attainable goal and simultaneously breeding an endless supply of guilt. The guilt served to prevent excessive reflection on the impossibility of standards that were without objective measures.
The Willoughby children, Simon and Alice, were proof that raising a child was virtually all art and very, very little science. Simon, the archetypical first child, favored by mother, was viewed with loving suspicion by his father. Alice, every bit the second child, clearly was, from birth, the go-to child when the paternal side of the family needed to exert influence in the family politic.
“Sure, Diane, that sounds like a really good idea. Your son just texted me that he wanted to stay for dinner at his buddy Sam’s house. I said yes, of course, but felt I had to remind him that, as a professional chef, it hurts that he prefers Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to my cooking!”
Diane walked through the mudroom into the kitchen, turning on the lights as she went. Ed’s efforts to lighten the mood, was increasingly like a bucket brigade on the Titanic. He appeared not to notice that his wife looked directly at him as he spoke, which, in the non-verbal lexicon of the Willoughby household, was a portent of adversarial conversations.
“Well, your daughter, Alice, is somewhere between Vulcan and Erewhon with her friends. She thinks we’re too old to understand how important her friends are to her. My god! If my parents had even half as much willingness to the see the world through my eyes when I was Alice’s age, I might have not have…. Wait a minute, nope. Never mind. That ‘I need my parents to understand and support me” doesn’t hold up in my case. I was just as precocious at her age. If I longed for my parents’ validation and understanding, I just plain don’t remember.” As Diane spoke, she put her briefcase on the desk in the family room, an act so uncharacteristic as to cause Ed to halt midstride. As much a sigil of her professional status as any crown or scepter to a member of a royal family, Diane Willoughby thought of her briefcase, (a Fendi vintage Courier), similarly to how many wives regard their husbands while at social occasions that involve a high percentage of strangers. No one touches it (without her permission) and there is an un-voiced assumption that nearly everyone wants to try and get into it. For Attorney Diane Willoughby to leave her briefcase in the family room (as opposed to her office on the second floor) was like the President forgetting ‘the black box’ in the men’s room.
“Yeah, well, with Perry Mason and Kathy Bates for parents, I’m not surprised,” Ed followed his wife back into the kitchen, catching the butler’s doors on the swing back, to see his wife standing at the center island, staring at him with a look of wounded anger.
“Come on, Diane, lighten up! You don’t know what kind of day I’ve had today.” Ed Willoughby’s confidence faltered as he watched incredulity struggle with outrage for possession of his wife’s face. She turned to the refrigerator, looked inside briefly and, without preamble, said, “Which would you prefer to do, cook or order some Chinese?” Without waiting for an answer, she walked out of the kitchen, into the living room and towards the stairs to the second floor stated, “I need a bath, give me about 45 minutes.” and disappeared up the stairs.
Diane raised her right foot and gave the faucet with ‘H’ on it a slight twist creating a hot current that grazed her ankle and hid behind her knee. The hint at relaxation spread from muscle to muscle upwards. Despite Ed’s insistence that no proper home should be without a full-on Jacuzzi, Diane preferred lying quietly in the embrace of a freshly drawn bath, preferring the mysterious exchange of stress for heat, rather than be pummeled by aggressive knots of water. Her way to relax involved (near) weightlessness and warmth, supplanted by the addition of hot water, the better to trace the progress of the release of tension. The world was put on hold, as long as she could lie beneath the water.
“Pizza or BLTs?” Ed’s voice bounced up the stairs, down the hall and slipped under the bathroom door, “Which would you prefer?”
“BLTs!’ Diane answered, projecting her voice with the skill of an opera singer. Her effectiveness in the courtroom was very much the result of training and practice in the effective use of the spoken word. She saw every jury as, collectively and individually, new lovers who wanted to be carried away to a happy ending. She would speak in reasonable tones when she wanted them to be reasonable and she would shout in fury when she needed their emotions to shape their thoughts. She enjoyed every minute she spent with a jury in a court of law.
She put a washcloth over her eyes and relaxed.
Diane and Edward Willoughby ate at the kitchen table and talked about the routine affairs of life with children. The demands of Diane’s law practice was fortunately offset to a degree by her children growing older and more self-sufficient. She looked forward to the time when they were old enough to drive, allowing everyone the luxury of coordinating their daily calendars without the necessity of the presence of an adult parent. Simultaneously with her dreams of the future, she felt a pang of future-nostalgia. It was not that Diane feared getting older, it was just that she enjoyed being younger, what she thought of as ‘the conquering phase of life’. She succeeded, (where many, if not most, failed), by passing her Bar Exam, marrying the man that she loved and combining two ambitious and potentially very productive lives into a family… a family of her own, that she loved more than anything else in the world.
The BLT was delicious.
“You, my husband, do have a fine touch in the kitchen.” Diane folded her napkin, placed it under her plate at precisely 2:00 (on an imaginary clock face) and looked at her husband. Ed smiled, pushed the crusts of his half-eaten sandwich to the middle of his plate, leaned over and kissed her neck. His hand on her thigh made clear his intentions for the meal’s dessert. The body-relaxing effect of the hot bath put her at a slight disadvantage in the time-honored battle that was approaching, the first skirmish line being the upper inseam of designer jeans and his right hand.
“That’s just one place in the house that I can be effective.” Ed backed-up the play of his left hand by sliding his other hand down her side, moving between her and the chair. Leverage was everything in the beginnings of seduction; it was all about moving from where one was to where one wanted to be.
His hands fell to the seat of her now empty chair.
Diane smiled to herself and looked at her husband who was now every bit the young boy confronted with four pages of small font instructions that stood between him and the model airplane that he had already imagined, suspended over his bed. Diane knew instinctively that her control lay in the management of frustration, not the elimination or acquiescing to the other’s desire. Moving with a slow grace, Diane went to the counter where the coffee maker, a commercial grade Bunn, stood on standby.
“You care to join me, Ed?” Ed looked up. His wife had made coffee. (Where had he been?) and was holding a mug out to him. “Let’s go sit in the living room. I need to ask you about your visitor today.”
“Before you say anything, there’s nothing going on between that detective and me.”
Diane sat on the couch, staring at the fire that Ed had built while she was upstairs en bathe. Feeling the warmth of the University of Chicago mug, she watched as he tended the fire. One of the qualities that attracted her to Ed Willoughby was the air of competency he projected, whether it was cooking or working around the house or something as simple and mundane as building a fire in their living room’s fireplace. He always seemed to project a certain patience that, when combined with a confident attitude, came across as dead-solid competence. She liked it then, she loved it when they first married and she now factored it into her plan for the rest of their evening.
“Ed, babe… put that thought out of your mind! That’s not even close to being anything that I’ve worried about!” Diane watched as her husband translated what she actually said into the assurance that she remained completely clueless to his extra-matrimonial wanderings. However, his compulsive need for approval from the opposite sex had gone beyond harmless, though repetitive, flirtations at social functions.
The relief on his face was replaced by the beginnings of annoyance and frustration.
“Good, I’m glad you have that out of your system. Maybe we can make something of the time before the kids get home.” He sat next to her on the couch.
“One question first.” Diane watched as her husband forced himself to pay attention to what his wife was saying and ignore what his body was telling him to do.
“When, exactly, were you planning to share with your wife, your attorney wife, the fact that the Chicago Police Department has taken interest in your life, enough to send a detective to your office?”
Diane watched his face betray the effects of his limbic system’s struggle to decide on the best course of action. The age old conflict between flight or fight was clear in his furtive glance towards the door then an equally quick and furtive glance at her torso. Then evidence of the higher level thinking appeared, as he looked around the room, noted the furniture (a clear investment in creating a permanent home) and the photos on the wall: two of the children and one good sized framed photo of the family in front of the fake Matterhorn at Disney World… it was Diane’s favorite photo.
“It was nothing, I told you that. She was asking about Father Noonan’s accidental death…” Diane watched her husband’s explanation with a slightly raised eyebrow,
“…and whether or not I knew some people. People I went to school with and who happened to die recently.” Ed managed an inflection intended to make this the last word on the topic, his facial expression, both pleading and defiant.
Diane felt her sense of relaxing at home being usurped by the aggressive inquisitiveness that lead to her being the youngest full partner in the history of her law firm. Most attorneys develop skills that permit them to get a person to reveal that which they might otherwise be determined to withhold. Diane’s skill was such that she was able to get people to reveal information that they were not aware that they possessed.
“These people, they were all part of that group you hung out with back in grad school?” Diane started the process.
“That’s right, it was a small group of us. We all got interested in writing for the online networks, that, nowadays we call blogging,” Ed begin to relax a bit.
“That’s right, I remember now! You and I had just started dating, and you used to say that with my law school schedule and your crazy course load at DePaul, you didn’t want to share me with the others in your group, what was it called, ‘the Hermetic…..?”
“The “Hermes Consortium.’ You know, the god of divine inspiration?”
“And trickery, the Greek version of Loki, if my own myth reading serves me” Diane really enjoyed what she did for a living.
” but that was just the name. We were all about writing fiction for the bulletin boards and other people on the internet. It was some ground-breaking stuff we were doing!”
“Sure, now that you mention it, I recall you told me one night that you were becoming a household name, at least among the small group of people who used the new online network. You even used the word famous!”
Diane saw a look that she had seen in people on the witness stand. It was a distant look, when a question sends them back to an earlier time. While their eyes reamined aimed at the scenery around them, the person behind the eyes, left the room, and searched for a place and time that some part of them wanted to believe could be returned to.
“You quit the group, right after our wedding, right before you decided that you didn’t really want a to be a CPA, that your true calling was cooking.”
“Yeah.” There was a wariness to Ed’s eyes that excited Diane.
“So. The other members of this club, they’re all dead now?” Judges (and other attorneys) would recognize that Diane was about to pounce on her prey, that all that lead to this point was meant to not only cause the person to remember something from the past, but the memory would be strong enough (or emotionally charged enough) to cause them to not pay attention to the person asking the questions.
“MOMMMM!! I’m home!!!”
Diane got up from the couch, unconsciously checked herself in the mirror over the fireplace and turned to her husband and said,
“You may not have done anything that the Chicago Police Department cares about, but you clearly are a link to something that they want to know more about. Tell me this, did you and your group, your Hermes Consortium, ever do anything illegal, even slightly or innocently?
“Hell no! We met on campus, we used the computers in the computer lab and, except for the time that Barry Audet tried invoke the devil and make a pact with him (he was crazy like that). It was just a glorified writers club.” Ed smiled. Smiling was one of the things that Ed did best. It was, not surprisingly, his most effective strategy when trying to redirect the attention of the person he was talking to. So, when he smiled at his reference to invoking the devil, it was, in fact, effective enough to throw his wife off the scent that she was following, prior to being interrupted by the early return of their son. They would both come to regret that smile.
“We’ll talk more later. Hi sweetheart, how was your day?” Diane Willoughby looked to her son and saw her future.
Cheri Fearing returned home (the home her parents bought for the newly married couple, that her income from being a tenured Professor of Fine Arts paid the mortgage on) to the sounds of bureau drawers opening and closing and suitcase zippers being secured and immediately went upstairs and almost collided with her husband Tom, as he walked out of the Master-bedroom with a small suitcase in his hand. “Tom, what on earth are you doing?”
“Hey, Cheri! perfect timing! I need a ride to the airport.” He spoke to her but looked at the walls, at his suitcase, pretty much at everything, except his wife’s face. Cheri learned early in their relationship that when her husband was getting mentally prepared to take some kind of decisive action, his need to engage in eye contact, never particularly strong, totally evaporated. It could be anything, from deciding that they needed a new gas grill to proposing marriage. Tom Fearing was just one of those people who rehearsed real life inside his head. Now, this warming up is common to many people, in particular musicians and orthopaedic surgeons, where a specific sequence of physical routines was to a degree predictable. Practice (of these activities) was intended to allow the person (musician or orthpaedic surgeon) to react to the unexpected, while still being able to follow the course of the planned activity.
“Come on, I’ll tell you on the way to the airport.” Tom was already in the garage and got behind the wheel as his surprised wife struggled to complete her incomplete ‘arriving home’ routines. There was nothing intentionally negative to the overwhelming determination of her husband, other than the inevitable hurt that results when one finds their own interests totally preempted. In the early stages of love, this can be a pleasurable experience, to lose oneself in another. However, for some, after a time, it can become much less pleasurable.
“Don’t tell me; it’s about the blog.” Cheri hoped for a non-adversarial tone, but sensing withdrawal from her husband to her statement, she began to believe that perhaps a good heart-to-heart discussion was in order.
“Well, yeah. I’m taking a quick trip to Chicago to meet with my source. Won’t take long. Very important. Flight 893 non-stop to O’Hare. You understand, don’t you?” Tom spoke with what he thought was a tone of urgency. In reality, it came across to Cheri closer to what it actually was, the stressed-out enthusiasm of a person who is truly desperate.
That Tom drove the Interstate, at his normal, consistently illegal cruising speed, did not worry Cheri, who was accustomed to her husband’s driving. What she was not accustomed to, was his abandoning normal habits of behavior in his effort to capture success.
“Tom, I need to ask you to not get on the plane.” Cheri felt that given the speed of the car and Tom’s capacity for distraction, it would be best to keep it simple.
“What? Why? I can’t do that! This is too important!” Tom turned to look at his wife, as if to see if, by her facial expression, he might find the loophole of doubt, anything that might provide him with a reason to stick to his plans.
“I just know that. I have a feeling, call it matern… a gut instinct, something I can’t explain, but is very real. Do me this favor. Let Flight 893 take off without you and we’ll have dinner and talk about your blog and your plans and everything.” Cheri sat quietly, her entire being focused on the unhappy man behind the wheel of the car.
That she was sincere was not in doubt. Tom did not find her request compelling enough on its own to comply with. He he was more motivated by the need to not cause his wife distress, and that concern seemed to be outweigh the urgency he felt about meeting with Ed Willoughby. This concern for the feelings of others was, at once, the reason he could write an engaging blog and, at the same time, created the conditions for not achieving success.
“You don’t understand, Cheri! I need to go out to Chicago and convince Ed Willoughby that we’re almost there, that the success of my series on the first bloggers is about to break out completely. I don’t want to let you down.” Tom felt an unfamiliar passion come into his voice, and was surprised that it came from his feelings for his wife and not for his fear of failing at his blog.
“Fuck Ed Willoughby!” the word was almost superfluous against the ferocity in her voice.
“Don’t you see? You’re the one who is telling the story and it’s the story that’s making all the people come to your blog! They aren’t interested in the history of blogging. The readers of your blog are responding to the tale you’re telling. You don’t need this Willoughby guy.”
Hope flickered, like an un-reliable ‘check engine light’ in an old car’s dashboard. The car slowed.