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The Secrets We Keep

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My whole body aches. I trawl memories of her, now so precious... my darling child. I can’t lose her…

When Tessa arrives at the little house by the lake with her two children, it is an escape. The rental house may be a bit small – but it’s theirs for the summer. A place to hide…

However, their isolation is disrupted by the family from the big house next door. Three children and their glamorous mother Rebecca – who seems determined to invite Tessa into their lives.

Rebecca, however, is harbouring a dark secret. And when it becomes too much for her to bear, Tessa seems to be the only person she can turn to.

But as powerful bonds form between the two families, choices will be made that can never be undone. And as the summer comås to an end, nothing can keep everyone safe. And one family will pay the ultimate price…

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Very nice book , I recommend it to anyone who likes reading
25 October 2020 (07:45) 

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A Mother’s Goodbye

The Secrets We Keep

This Fragile Life

When He Fell

Rainy Day Sisters

Now and Then Friends

A Mother like Mine

* * *

Writing as Katharine Swartz:

The Vicar's Wife

The Lost Garden

The Second Bride

The Other Side of The Bridge






































A Mother’s Goodbye

Hear More from Kate

Also by Kate Hewitt

A Letter from Kate


To my children: Caroline, Ellen, Teddy, Anna, and Charlotte.

I hope you always know you are loved exactly as you are. Love, Mom


You are so silent, so still. I can barely hear you breathing, and I don’t think I’d know you were except for the barely there rise and fall of your chest under the starchy hospital sheet, visible only when I lean forward and look for it, for a desperately needed sign that you’re still here, that you’re holding on, despite what the doctors say, the way they shake their heads.

It all happened so quickly—a blur, the blood, screams and shock. So much shock. My mind is still spinning with disbelief, that this happened to my child, but I know if it stops spinning the guilt will rush in, along with the terror. This is all my fault. I can’t escape that awful reality, that I could have stopped all of this if I’d seen it coming… I could have kept you safe, and I didn’t.

All around me the hospital is quiet, the long, lonely hours of the night ticking by as I wait for the verdict. The doctors say they’ll know more soon… whether you will wake up or not. Whether you will live or die.

I stare at;  you, willing you to open your eyes. To smile sleepily as recognition dawns. I crave that, the unutterable relief of it, because I can’t stand to think that you might not be all right, that a moment was all it took, a moment when I wasn’t watching, when I didn’t see.

Because no matter what I try to tell myself now, I’m sure, I’m so sure, that I could have kept all this from happening if only I’d been strong enough. If only I’d been different.




“We’re almost there.”

I crane my head around, taking my eyes off the winding road for a split second, to give Ben and Katherine what I hope is an encouraging smile. Ben isn’t even looking at me—his eyes are glued to his Kindle Fire tablet, as usual—and Katherine is staring out the window, twirling a strand of hair around one finger. Both of them already seem bored, and our summer vacation has barely started.

I turn back to the road, unsure if the clench of my stomach muscles is from excitement or terror. I’m doing this. I’m really doing this. Three months away from the city, away from Kyle, away from a life that has finally become unbearable. Three months alone with my children, in the wilds of Upstate New York, reconnecting with them and myself or whatever mindful approach made me think this was a good idea back in March. And it is a good idea. It has to be, because it’s the only one I’ve got left.

We’ve been driving for over an hour from Syracuse, where we picked up our rental car for the summer after taking the train from New York, down winding, country roads, the rolling fields and clumps of trees—what are they? Oak? Maple?—interspersed with occasional buildings—long, low, shed-like barns that sell tractor parts, or speedboats, or animal feed.

The cute little antique shops and local wineries I’ve been daydreaming about haven’t quite materialized yet, but I’m sure they will. This is the Finger Lakes, after all, a major tourist area, even if most New Yorkers probably consider it on par with Antarctica.

Suddenly Ben throws his tablet across the seat, making Katherine let out an irritable “ow” as it hits her leg, before he presses his nose to the window. “Mom, there’s a paintball place over there. Can we go? Please? Now?”

I picture my nine-year-old son pelting my body with paintballs and try to give him a bland look. “Not now, Ben, we’re on our way to the cottage, but maybe later. We’ll see.”

Ben groans theatrically and starts kicking the back of my seat. Katherine throws the Kindle back at him and they begin to bicker; before I can so much as offer a “hey, stop”, Katherine is in tears and Ben is back on his game. I’d close my eyes if I weren’t driving. This summer is going to be good, I remind myself. Really. It has to be.

The trees on either side of the road feel as if they’re pressing against the car as we inch along; after spending the last twenty years in New York City, I’m not used to driving, and I’m probably being a bit over-cautious. I’ve been passed by at least a dozen pick-up trucks and SUVs, two of the drivers flipping me the finger, but never mind. We’ll get there.

And then what?

I can’t quite see how this is all going to unfold, how I’m going to turn it all around. All I know is I couldn’t stand another day back in Brooklyn, feeling like a ghost in my own life, with everything piling on top of me, making it hard to breathe—Katherine’s sulky shyness, Ben’s boisterousness, Kyle’s heavy silences, the tension that covers everything, thick and toxic. Sometimes I catch Kyle looking at me, his eyes narrowed, his lips pursed, and I feel a chill penetrating my body all the way through. What happened, that made him look like that at me, his wife?

At least here there will be no frowning school teachers giving Ben yellow cards for being too rough. There will be no supposedly all-class birthday parties where Katherine is the only one who isn’t invited. There will be no smug mothers on the school playground, slyly rolling their eyes when they think I’m not looking.

And there will be no Kyle. That brings the most relief. There will be no silently accusing looks, no suppressed sighs, no endless tension that leaves me feeling as if I’m constantly making missteps, only I don’t know what they are and I’m afraid to ask.

Escaping it started to feel like the best option, the only option. So I went online and rented the first affordable place I could find for the summer—Pine Cottage, on the shores of one of the Finger Lakes, three months away from Brooklyn, from PS 39, the children’s school… and from my husband.

I wanted a place where we could put down the devices and let go of the worry and fear, where we could reconnect over barbecues and late-night swims and… other stuff. In my mind, it was a hazy mirage of happiness for the three of us; Kyle was never in the imaginary picture. Now that we’re actually approaching our summer destination, however, I’m not sure what the reality is going to look like, or more importantly, how to make it happen.

But that feels as if it’s been my story since I lost my own mom; I feel like her death cut me adrift, and I’m still trying to find something to anchor me back to my reality, to connect me to my children, both of whom feel impossibly distant sometimes. If my mom were still alive, she’d show me how to do it, I’m sure of it. She’d laugh and hug me and tell me not to worry so much. She’d remind me of stories from my own childhood, how moody and impossible I was when I was eleven, how I didn’t get invited to this or that birthday party. Stories I’ve forgotten, because I need my mother to keep telling me, to ground me in my own past, so I can help Katherine with her present.

“When are we going to get there?” Ben demands as he kicks the back of my seat again, making me let out an oof in response.

“Soon.” As if my answer is the magic word, we suddenly break free of the dense forest, to emerge on an open road with a glittering, endless expanse of lake before us. I nearly stop the car to take in the magnificent sight—endless blue above and below, the sun sparkling over everything, the world shimmering with promise, a picture postcard of what life could be like. Neither Ben nor Katherine seems particularly impressed, though, so after a second’s glance I keep driving.

I continue along the narrow road that hugs the lake, past gorgeous, sprawling log cabins and three-story lake houses with their own boat launches and docks, huge, rambling places with friendly front porches hung with American flags and Adirondack chairs scattered on the velvety grass; they all look like something from a photo shoot for Eddie Bauer or Abercrombie & Fitch.

Foolishly, I start to imagine that this is the kind of house we’re renting, even though I’ve seen the picture and read the description myself, online, three months ago, and I know our rental doesn’t look anything like these dream homes.

We are renting a two-bedroom ranch house with a scant twenty-five feet of lake frontage, a kitchen and bathroom in 1970s avocado green, and a screened-in porch with a couple of frayed wicker chairs. It was what was in our budget, even then just barely, but at least it will be ours.

Kyle muttered about it being a waste of money and he didn’t think we should go at all, giving me a dark look that I couldn’t interpret and chose not to try. I’m glad to escape him for a little while—except the realization, now that we’re here, suddenly seizes me with anxiety. Am I really doing the right thing, leaving my husband for nearly three whole months? Leaving my life?

“Which one’s ours?” Katherine asks as we pass a three-story mansion covered in brown shingle, complete with a Rapunzel-like turret. My stomach clenches a little more. How are we not going to feel disappointed by our shabby reality, with all these gorgeous behemoths around us? But that’s not how I want to start our summer—with disillusionment rather than hope. I’ve had enough of that already.

“Let’s see…” I peer at the signs staked in front of various cottages with their playful, curlicue script, like each one is the entrance to a personal fairy tale. Ten Maples… Cove View… Twilight Shores… “Ah, here it is. Pine Cottage.”

My children are silent as I pull into the dirt track that serves as a driveway. Pine Cottage sits huddled against the shore of the lake as if it is ashamed of itself, which perhaps it should be, considering its neighbors. Painted a drab olive green that is peeling off in long strips in various places, the cottage squats in the looming shadow of a huge, gorgeous lake house of dark blue shingle with a massive deck jutting right over its hundreds of feet of lakefront, and a three-story picture window overlooking the sparkling water.

On the other side of our cottage, a bit farther away, is a sprawling modern house of white stucco with three different terraces and a dock that extends far out into the lake, a gleaming red motorboat moored at its end. How on earth did poor, pathetic little Pine Cottage survive the arrival of all these showy upstarts? I feel a surge of protective affection for it, simply for being there, for clinging to hope, if only just. Kind of like me.

“So, shall we go in?” I ask brightly.

Katherine and Ben still haven’t moved or spoken as I get out of the car and stretch, my back aching. I glance at my children; Katherine is chewing a strand of hair and Ben is back on his tablet, thumbs moving so rapidly they practically blur.

“Come on, guys.” I can’t keep my tone from turning the tiniest bit frustrated at their lack of involvement in this moment. “Let’s go check it out.”

“Let me finish my level,” Ben grunts, and something in me starts to fray.

“No, Ben.” I yank open the back door of the car and then reach in, managing to snatch the tablet from his sweaty hands, a move I’ve practiced over the years, although admittedly it has a limited success rate. “Let’s go now. You can play this anytime.” Although not that often if I can help it.

I pocket the device and walk across the scrubby little yard to the cottage’s front step, a slab of cracked concrete. From behind me the car doors slam. At least the kids are following me. I fish in the FedEx packet I was sent a few weeks ago for the keys, and then a second later, I open the door and step across the threshold of Pine Cottage, blinking in the gloom. The pine trees that gave the cottage its name droop over the house, making it feel a bit like walking into a cave. There is a smell of must and damp in the air, but once we open the windows I’m sure it will be fine.

“So,” I say as I flip on a few lights, illuminating the small living room with its orange sofa and fake wood coffee table, “at least it’s clean.”

Ben snorts and Katherine hovers in the doorway, a strand of hair still trailing out of her mouth as she looks askance at our summer home. I can’t blame her, but I still feel a little frustrated, a little sad. I want us all to share in the excitement of this summer.

I head into the small kitchen with its laminate cabinets and cracked linoleum, determined to see the bright side of everything. So the house is shabby? Big deal. The kitchen feels like a tacked-on afterthought, and the fridge is making a wheezing sound that suggests it is not long for this world, but none of this matters. I peer out the back door, which leads to the little porch, that, unlike in the photo online, is filled with junk and, for the moment, unusable.

I breathe in deeply, clinging to my optimism. We’ll be outside most of the time anyway, enjoying the sand and the sun and the lake. We don’t need a gourmet kitchen or acres of indoor space.

“I saw mouse poo in the bedroom,” Ben announces from behind me. He sounds gleefully disgusted. “On the bed.” Katherine lets out a little shriek at this, and I try for a smile.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get traps.” And marshmallows to toast, and citronella candles, and a blanket for picnics. I’m holding on to that hazy montage, trying to make it seem more real, the kind of life I always thought I’d enjoy, once I had kids. The kind of life I’m sure I had once, even if I don’t feel as if I can always remember when things were different. Before my mom got sick, before she died. “Let’s go take a look at the lake.”

With Ben and Katherine trailing behind me, I leave the cottage and make my way across the yard, the scrubby dirt turning to sand, until I come to the shore. Pine Cottage is no more than twenty yards from the lake, and as I kick off my sandals and let the cool water lap over my feet, digging my toes into the pleasingly squishy sand, I feel the tightly held parts of myself finally start to loosen.

“Look,” I say. Ben and Katherine are huddling by the shore, as if the water might be toxic. They’re city children, no doubt about it. Grandly, I sweep out an arm to encompass the shining waters stretching nearly to the horizon, a fringe of evergreens darkening their edge on the other side, dotted with lake houses. A raft bobs about fifty yards out. “Isn’t this amazing? This is why we came. This is all we need.”

“Can I have my tablet back?” Ben asks after a few moments when he’s been kicking the sand with his sneaker. Katherine is sitting down, her knees clasped to her chest, looking woebegone.

“Why don’t you get your swimsuits on? We can christen the lake with a dip.”

Katherine crinkles her nose uncertainly. “Christen…?”

“I just mean, let’s go swimming.” I’m suddenly seized by a near-panicky determination to make this into a moment. “Why not? Let’s do it! Right now!”

Ben and Katherine simply stare as I hurry past them to the car. I open the trunk and yank our suitcases out, opening them right there on the drive.

“Mom.” Katherine sounds both fascinated and appalled. A pair of her underpants has spilled onto the driveway, and she snatches it, mortified even though no one’s looking.

“Here.” I throw the pale pink suit we bought at Target last week and it hits her squarely in the chest. “And here.” I toss Ben his blue-and-white striped board shorts and then grab my poor, faded tankini—I wasn’t able to find a suit I liked this year, surprise, surprise. The ten extra pounds around my middle are not going to shift, no matter what I keep telling myself. Still, I don’t want to buy a new suit and admit defeat, and in any case until now there hasn’t been much point.

We change inside the house, Katherine barricading herself in the bedroom and shrieking when Ben rattles the doorknob, cackling. Over the last few months she’s become increasingly selfconscious about her budding body, and Ben torments her over it. I shout at him to stop as I wriggle into my tankini in the minuscule bathroom, avoiding my reflection in the foggy mirror above the sink and what I know I’ll see there—frizzy hair, eyebrows that need some serious maintenance, and a body that reminds Ben, as he so kindly told me once when he poked my stomach, of dough.

We emerge from the cottage, each of us like a shy caterpillar from a shabby chrysalis, blinking in the sunlight, conscious of all the bare skin. Or at least Katherine and I are. Ben lets out a primal yelp and barrels toward the lake, letting out another one as his feet touch the water.

“It’s cold!”

“You’ll get used to it.”

Ben shivers theatrically and I laugh. This is what I dreamed of. This is what we all needed. Ben starts wading into the shallows, his city skittishness abandoned, but Katherine stands by the edge like a shy foal.

I glance at her, as ever unsure what she is thinking or feeling. My firstborn, my only daughter. She’s been an enigma to me for so long, and I can’t help but feel like it is my fault. Where is my mother’s instinct when it comes to Katherine? Where has it ever been? We always seem to be reaching for each other and missing, and it’s become more and more noticeable as she’s got older.

“Come on in, Katherine,” I say, my tone hopelessly cajoling. “It’s not that cold, really.”

Katherine looks away without replying, making me wilt inside, although I try not to show it. It feels like it’s always been this way between us, from the time she was a baby, first refusing to nurse no matter how much I tried to bring her to my breast, and then later maintaining stony silences even as a hurt toddler, with a scraped knee and tears drying on her cheeks.

Sometimes I almost prefer Ben’s manic boy energy compared to Katherine’s wary stillness; now, as ever, I don’t know how to handle it. It frustrates and saddens me at turns, and the worst part is, I think she knows, no matter how hard I try to hide it.

In any case, Ben breaks the moment by splashing me, dousing me in water which, no matter what I just said, really is cold.

“Ben!” My voice rings out, half-laughing, half-scolding. He grins and splashes me again. Katherine, still on the shore, sits down on the damp sand and clutches her knees to her chest.

While Ben splashes around I float on my back and stare up at the azure sky, the world around me fading to nothing but this sunlit moment. I’m not going to worry about my children, or how we’ll occupy the next three months, or the fact that I ought to call Kyle, even though I’m dreading one of our tense conversations. I’m simply going to let my mind empty out as I revel in the perfect peace of this moment, the sense of possibility that still remains, shimmering and endless.

I’m aware of something changing more from a strange, prickling feeling than anything else; I don’t think I’ve heard a sound or a voice. But for some reason I stand up, my feet touching the bottom of the lake, which out here, up to my shoulders, doesn’t feel as nice. My toe brushes something slimy and I jerk my foot away from it.

I blink water out of my eyes to take in the sight of a little girl standing by the shore, hands planted on her hips. She looks to be about eight or nine, with glossy blonde hair in an expensive-looking pageboy cut and impossibly bright blue eyes. She wears a tiny string bikini that looks incongruous on her sturdy little child’s body.

“This is our beach,” she announces. Ben and Katherine simply stare. I start wading back toward the shore.

“Sorry?” I say, adopting that slightly jolly mother’s tone that is meant to convey both friendliness and authority. The little girl doesn’t even blink.

“This is our beach.” She takes one hand off her hip and waves it toward the hulking lake house of blue shingle in the distance. Of course she comes from there. “We have five hundred feet of lake frontage, and I’ve been measuring it.” She points to Pine Cottage’s pitiful twenty-five feet of said frontage. “This is ours.”

“Oh, really?” I smile with a certain kind of adult condescension. Her determined gaze doesn’t waver. “Well, actually, this is our cottage, and the lake directly in front of it is ours too, at least for the summer. Anyway,” I add, afraid my voice may have been a bit too hard, “I’m sure you have enough for yourselves. The lake’s big enough for both of us, don’t you think?” I give the girl what I hope is a friendly smile.

“That doesn’t matter. My mother said we had five hundred feet, and the brochure said it too, and so that’s ours.” She blinks, her gaze fastened on me. “You shouldn’t be here.”

Ben and Katherine are still silent, watching this exchange with a kind of morbid fascination. I grit my teeth, holding on to my mom-friendliness with effort. Who is this kid?

“Well, this is our cottage and our beach,” I say, trying to keep it light and friendly, “so maybe you shouldn’t be here.” I temper my words with a smile. “Unless you’d like to swim with us?”

“Swim with you?” The girl looks practically revolted.

“Then maybe you should go? Find your parents, maybe?” Too late I realize how unfriendly I sound, but good grief. I guess we won’t be hanging out with our neighbors, not that I ever imagined such a thing.


I look up to see a woman coming down a worn dirt path snaking between the drooping pines; it leads to the big lake house, although why there should be such a path between these two impossibly different residences I have no idea.

“Zoe, you gave me such a scare. What are you doing over here?” The woman glances at Pine Cottage, her nose wrinkling, her guileless gaze taking it in and undoubtedly assessing it as a dump in less than three seconds before she turns to me with a wide, sunny smile. “Hello, I’m Rebecca Finlay. We’re renting over there.” She gestures toward the grandiose lake house.

I manage a smile, although everything about this situation is making me tense. Rebecca Finlay is exactly the kind of woman I dislike, and yes, I know that makes me sound judgmental, but I’m basing it on unfortunate experiences of women just like her back home who blanked me, and worse, did the same to my children, at school or the park. Who meet each other’s gazes over the top of my head, eyes rolling just a little. Who give tinkling laughs as they look away dismissively.

She’s also everything I’ve never felt myself—confident, self-assured, elegant, at ease. She is tall and willowy, her impossibly blonde hair cut in an expensive-looking bob like her daughter’s, and now caught back with a pale blue cloth-covered headband. Her hair is gleaming and perfect, expertly highlighted in a pale rainbow of golds and silvers, just as everything else about her is perfect—her nearly wrinkle-free skin, her manicured nails, her thin-as-a-stick figure. She wears a crisp, white sleeveless blouse with a pair of pale blue capris—they match the headband—with knife-edge pleats.

In this moment I am horribly conscious of my nubby bathing suit, faded and stretched out from years of reluctant use. “Hi,” I manage as I wade out of the water. “I’m Tessa McIntyre. We’re renting here.”



Of course, I go upstairs for three seconds and Zoe disappears. I can’t have a moment to myself here. I should have hired a nanny for the summer, but Josh said the kids were too old for one and anyway, that wasn’t the point. What the point is, I have no idea. To be tidied away? To not embarrass him any more than I already have? I don’t know which is worse—having Josh disapproving of me, or having him worried about me. The children suspect something is wrong, I know. Charlotte has given me looks.

Zoe, of course, is angry; she misses her gang of summer friends from the Hamptons, and of course she blames me for taking her away from them. Charlotte seems indifferent about whether we’re in the Hamptons or Hicksville Finger Lakes, and there is no denying that Max is relieved. Yet whatever my children feel, whatever I feel, the fact remains we’re in exile, even if it was somewhat chosen.

I glance now at Zoe and then at my neighbor, this Tessa, with her two awkward-looking children behind her. No one says anything, but I feel the tension in the air, which is practically crackling. Zoe glares at Tessa while her two children stand by the water’s edge, completely mute and still. I know how to handle this, of course; I’m an expert at handling these tedious situations, making socially awkward people feel comfortable and liked. Whether it’s a school fair or cocktail party, I’m your woman. At least I was. I’m sure some people would disagree now, and I know Josh would. I’ve definitely let it all slip in the last few months, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because I don’t even feel like making the effort right now.

We arrived here a week ago and it’s already felt endless, even though I’m relieved not to face a summer of judgment and whispers in the Hamptons. Josh’s words keep replaying in my mind: Maybe it’s better for you to be away from it all. Give you time to think. How about Wisconsin?

Three months with my parents. Absolutely not. And the last thing I want is time to think. Just thinking about thinking sends memories flitting like shadows through my mind, along with the treacherous doubt. I feel like my mind has splintered into spinning fragments and there’s no way I can put them together again. It’s a miracle that I’ve managed, for the most part, to seem as if I have. I’ve fooled Josh far more than he realizes. That much I know, at least. Sometimes I think I’ve managed to fool myself. If I act like I’m okay, I will be. The biggest lie but I’m buying into it for now because I don’t know what else to do.

I don’t want to think about all that now, though, and so I focus on Tessa and her children.

“You’re renting too? Oh, how wonderful!” My voice is bright and carrying, full of enthusiasm. “How long are you here for?”

“The whole summer.” Tessa has come out of the water and stands on the beach, round-shouldered and shivering. “What about you?”

“The same.”

“Oh. Wow. Great.” Tessa’s words fall like stones into the stillness, and I know she is thinking the same thing as I am. Nearly three months of being neighbors. We could politely avoid one another, but it will be awkward, a summer of apologetic smiles and stilted chitchat as we clamber into our cars. We’re clearly very different people.

“So where are you from?” I ask in the same friendly voice. “Very far away?”

“New York City,” Tessa says, and I give a semi-squeal.

“Oh wow, us too! Which part?”

“Park Slope.”

“Oh, I love Brooklyn.” I haven’t actually been there, except to drive through. “It’s so hip and trendy, isn’t it? Everyone’s moving there.” One of the moms at Stirling Prep, the children’s private school, moved to Brooklyn and honestly, it was as if she’d died. We went out for drinks the night before her move, and it felt like a wake.

“Yes, well, the rental prices certainly reflect that.” Tessa lets out a little laugh and I nod, as if I know anything about rental prices in Brooklyn. We’ve owned our own apartment, a four-bedroom on Fifth Avenue, for ten years.

“Mommy, this is our beach.” I glance down at Zoe, taking in the familiar gleam of obstinate mischief in her bright blue eyes. Maniacal child. Exhausting, maniacal child whom I can’t help but adore, simply for being so stubborn. Charlotte and Max are both ridiculously easy compared to her, and yet if I had to have a favorite, which of course I don’t, it just might be Zoe.

“Zoe, what on earth are you talking about?” I let out a laugh and share a glance with Tessa, who looks heartened by this seeming complicity between us. Kids these days.

“We have five hundred feet of beachfront,” Zoe says, her tone determined now. “It said so in the brochure. I’ve been counting it out, and so this part has to be ours, because we only have four hundred and fifty.”

I glance back down at my daughter, too exasperated to be embarrassed by her ridiculous assertion. She’s just trying to cause trouble, although why she’d pick on our hapless neighbors I have no idea. Easy targets, I suppose. “Oh, Zoe, honestly. You are too much. We have plenty of beach, we don’t need to go grabbing other people’s.”

I glance back at Tessa, shaking my head, inviting her to share the joke even though I know Zoe will be furious later. Zoe is so often furious.

Tessa manages a smile. “Maybe it goes five hundred feet the other way,” she suggests to Zoe, who glares at her.

“That’s in the woods,” my daughter says scornfully. “It’s not really beach so it doesn’t count.”

“Yes, but it’s still lakefront.” I can’t believe I’m bothering to debate this ridiculous point. “That’s what they’re counting, not whether it’s beach or not. The sand is all driven in, dumped by a truck. There’s no natural beach. Anyway…” I give Tessa a farewell kind of smile. “It’s been so nice to meet you.”

“You, too.” She glances back at her children, who have been shuffling by the shore. “Sorry, I should have introduced my kids. This is Ben and—and Katherine.” For some reason she sounds almost uncertain as she says her daughter’s name.

“So nice to meet you.” I give them a wide smile as I glance at them appraisingly. Katherine has hit that gawky stage of girlhood, her breasts two noticeable bumps under her bathing suit, and Ben’s shaggy hair hides his eyes. Neither of them speaks.

A shiver of apprehension runs through me as it hits me all over again—nearly three months in this place. Good grief, what are we going to do? We went to the tennis and pool club for the last few days, for the children’s lessons, and we have sailing twice a week, but rubbing elbows with the provincial version of the Upper East Side at the club was even more exhausting than I expected. But what’s the alternative? Becoming best friends with Tessa McIntyre?

“Ben, Katherine…” Tessa sounds both annoyed and embarrassed, and trying not to be either. “Say hello, guys. Introduce yourselves.”

They both mumble something unintelligible, and I give yet another wide, sunny smile; my cheeks are starting to hurt. “So how old are you, Katherine?”


“The same age as Charlotte!” I clap my hands as if in delight, the sound startling both children so they jerk a little. “And what about you, Ben?”

“Nine.” He glances up at me from underneath his shaggy hair, clearly bored by grownup conversation.

“The same age as Zoe here!” Zoe stares at them both, unimpressed. “And Max is eight.”

“You have three children?” Tessa says, dutifully doing the arithmetic, and I nod.

“Yes. Three.” Conversation is clearly going to be hard work, but at least it keeps my mind engaged. “I know,” I say, as if I’ve just had a sudden and fantastic idea, “why don’t you all come over for dinner tomorrow night?” They all stare at me blankly. “It will be so much fun.”

“Yes…” Tessa says, sounding uncertain. You’d think she’d be grateful for such an invitation.

“I’m afraid we’re out in the afternoon for swimming lessons, but I could order a bunch of pizzas and you can come over and hang out.” The two words—hang out—seem to remain there, hovering awkwardly in the air, before they fall, silent, to the ground. I cannot exactly see our five children hanging out together, but they’re young, they’ll get along eventually. Kids always do.

I turn to Ben and Katherine, lowering my voice in a conspiratorial whisper. “You’ll both be lifesavers to my three. We’ve only been here a week and they’re already bored to tears.” Zoe snorts in derision, showing my words for the lie they obviously are.

“Thank you,” Tessa says at last. “That would be great.”

“Perfect.” I give a little satisfied nod. “Shall we say five?”

Tessa nods jerkily. “Five it is.”

After a flurry of goodbyes, I head back down the path to our house, Zoe trotting behind me. I feel strangely, surprisingly exhilarated by the conversation, which is something new. Everything social has exhausted me lately: the endless routine of conversations and gossip, the sneaky sniping, the careful quips. It seems so utterly pointless now.

At least Tessa is different; she’s the kind of person who will no doubt be grateful for my friendship. As arrogant as I know that makes me sound, it’s still true. I won’t have to watch myself with her, which is a relief. And she’s a distraction, which I desperately need.

“Why did you invite them to dinner?” Zoe asks as we reach the set of steep, wooden stairs that lead to the deck. They must be a nightmare in winter. “They’re boring.”

“Why did you go on about the beachfront?” I retort, my annoyance slipping through. “Honestly, Zoe, what a bratty thing to do.”

Zoe juts her lower lip out, and I turn away, unwilling to deal with her theatrics right now. Let her be furious. “We need to be at the club in ten minutes. Go get ready, and tell Charlotte and Max as well.”

Zoe huffs as she goes off, and I am alone in the huge, gleaming expanse of the kitchen. I place my hands flat on the granite-topped island and breathe in deeply.

I think back to Tessa, slumping where she stood, an apology for herself. She could use a makeover, or at least a decent set of tweezers. I toy with the idea of helping her make the most of herself; that would certainly be a project, and might keep me busy. Then I glance at my phone and see that Josh has texted me yet again. Everything okay?

I grab the phone and thumb a quick text. Yes. Fine. Just met the neighbors! Smiley face and a heart. I toss the phone back onto the counter, disgusted with both myself and my husband, at the charade we’re both willingly enacting because it’s so much easier than admitting the fault lines that have appeared in our marriage, the cracks that are growing wider with every passing day.

Josh has texted me every morning, afternoon, and evening since I’ve been here, but he doesn’t want to talk. He just wants to check up on me, the jailer rattling my chain, making sure I’m still suitably tethered.

He’s called Charlotte on her phone, and talked to the other children nearly every day too, but not a proper word for me. Not a conversation, not that I’d even know what to say, how to begin. We’ve been trying not to have a conversation for months.

Upstairs, I hear the children shuffling around, getting ready for tennis. I walk to the fridge, leaning my cheek against the cool stainless steel for a few seconds before I open the door and take out the bottle of white wine I picked up in Geneseo during the last grocery trip. There’s a quarter inch left, after two days. Not bad. I quickly swig right from the bottle, the cool, crisp taste zinging on my tongue as I swallow and then sending up a needed glow in my stomach.

By the time Zoe stomps downstairs, dressed in her gleaming tennis whites, the bottle is in the bottom of the recycling bin and I am smiling, car keys in hand.

“Hey, there. Are Charlotte and Max ready?”

“Almost,” Zoe says in a bored voice, and as she fetches her tennis racquet I give my reflection a quick glance, noticing the deepening crow’s feet by my eyes. I can see a few gray strands amid the careful highlighting. Maybe I’m the one who needs a makeover. Not that a makeover is going to help me now.

For a second I feel that now-familiar consuming wave of dread, as if I’m being sucked down a hole and there is nothing I can do about it. Oh, I could go the usual route of the bored housewife—mindfulness, yoga, Valium. The trinity of self-care that everyone in my world does. The trouble is, I don’t think anything will help me now. I’m drowning, and no one can save me.



We are all a bit subdued as we head into Pine Cottage after our interaction with Zoe and Rebecca Finlay. The house feels strangely quiet, my ears practically ringing the way they would after a rock concert, when you’re plunged into sudden, breathless stillness. Katherine barricades herself in the bedroom and Ben sprawls on the sofa in his wet swimsuit.

“Ben! Change.”

He groans but at least he gets up. I change out of my suit and as I hang it up with Katherine and Ben’s on the frayed line strung between two trees outside, I see Rebecca and the kids getting into a shiny, enormous SUV parked in the driveway of their house.

Standing here, I realize just how much I can see of their house, their lives—the big picture window is practically like a movie screen; I can even see the shape of some sofas and chairs in the room beyond. It all looks sumptuous and comfortable, the best of both worlds.

Only a few straggly trees separate our properties, so I have a clear view of their deck and the steep stairs up to it, as well as the manicured lawn leading down to their lakefront, with its manmade beach and long dock. I squint and make out a tall, slender girl drifting toward the car from the deck—that must be Charlotte—and a small, slight boy with glasses following behind, who must be Max. Then Zoe struts out, carrying her tennis racquet like a rifle over one shoulder, and as I watch, she turns her head and her eyes narrow. I realize she’s looking right at me.

I duck out of view, behind my dripping suit, but it’s too late. She’s seen me spying on them, and will no doubt tell her mother. This is going to be a long summer.

Back inside, Ben has found his Kindle Fire in my bag and is stretched out on the sofa, hard at play. Katherine stands uncertainly in the doorway of the bedroom she will share with Ben, looking, as ever, as if she doesn’t know where or even how to be.

“Do you want to help me get the bags from the car?” I suggest and she shrugs. I glance at Ben. “You too, Ben. Come and help.”

Ben grunts in reply. I hesitate, wondering which battle to pick as I feel like I am always doing. I used to simply not bother, because I was too tired, too sad, too worn down by life. But in the last few months I’ve been trying more, before my children slip away from me completely.

So now, despite the resistance I’m sure to meet, I plant my hands on my hips and take a stand.

“Come on. Now.” I stand over him, my hands on my hips, waiting. Ben gives another one of his groans.


Outside Katherine is struggling to get a bag out of the trunk and with a snort of derision, Ben elbows her aside and hauls it out, catching the side on the latch of the trunk and creating a big rip in the side. Perfect.

“You hurt me!” Katherine squeals resentfully, and Ben just shrugs. I sigh and take the bag from him before it gets battered further. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

The honk of a horn makes all three of us jump, and I turn to see Rebecca at the wheel of her SUV, the window down, expensive sunglasses hiding her eyes as she waggles her fingers. “Remember,” she trills. “Tomorrow at five!”

As if I could forget.

“Why do we have to go there for dinner?” Katherine asks once all our bags are inside and I am starting to unpack, putting my t-shirts and shorts in the drawers of the dresser in my bedroom. The boughs of the pine trees completely cover the window, making the room gloomy and dark.

“It’s nice of them to invite us, Katherine.” Even if I’m dreading it almost as much as I think my daughter is. I know women like Rebecca Finlay. She might live on the Upper East Side but there are plenty of women like her in Brooklyn, which has become so gentrified in recent years that it’s hard to believe we moved there to be arty and cool, back when we were young and idealistic and the rent wasn’t astronomical. It feels so long ago now it’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, everything fuzzy and distant. Was that me? Was I really like that?

In any case, no matter where they live, women like Rebecca are experts at seeming friendly while making subtle digs. Making you feel inadequate—hell, she only needs to show up to make me feel that—while acting like your friend. Sort of.

Uneasy guilt creeps through me, because I know I’m being at least a little judgmental. I’m painting Rebecca Finlay with the same colors as the moms I know in Park Slope—the ones who smile vaguely at me from a distance, as if we’re friends, and then “forget” to include me in the Friday night social at the local wine bar. I never expected motherhood to be so hard, in so many ways. If I’d had my own mom to guide me, or at least to complain to…

A lump forms in my throat, even after two years. I feel like I should be past it now, I should be able to move on a little more. My mother’s death, two years on, shouldn’t make me cry, but in these unguarded moments I feel like I could sob. I miss her. I need her.

As if to drag me out of my encroaching self-pity party, my phone buzzes and I see it’s my best friend Rayha, no doubt checking in to see how I’m doing.

“So, is it fabulous?” she asks as soon as I swipe the screen to take the call. I glance at Katherine still standing in the doorway of my bedroom, and Ben back on the sofa.

“We just got here, but I think it’s going to be really good.” I give Katherine a quick, reassuring smile before I slip past her and step outside for a little privacy. The glare of the sun hits me all over again and the air smells fresh, of pine and sunshine. “The lake’s right on our doorstep. We’ve already had a swim.”

“Wow, I can’t even imagine! That’s great, Tessa. I’m so happy for you.” Rayha’s voice is full of warmth; she knows a little bit about how I’ve struggled, especially after my mom’s death, although she doesn’t know it all. No one does, because I’m too ashamed to admit how lost I feel when it comes to my own daughter, how helpless when it comes to my son, or how my marriage feels like something that’s broken. And I don’t talk about my mom at all, because it hurts too much.

But I’ve told Rayha some things, and she’s always sympathized. “I think this could be really good for you all,” she continues. “Exactly what you need. A reset button, a new perspective.”

“Yeah.” She’s echoing back what I told her in April; back then Rayha was worried and disappointed I was going away for the summer and she tried to hide it from me. She’s a single mom with a full-time job and a special needs son, and the hectic chaos of her life has reduced our friendship over the years to phone calls, texts, and the very occasional night out, but she liked having me around in Brooklyn, just as I have needed to know she was there. Three months apart felt like a long time.

We met in a baby group when Ben was born, before her son Zane was diagnosed with childhood disintegrative disorder, one of the most heartbreaking conditions I’ve ever known or heard of. As a baby, Zane was cheerful and normal, with his drooly, toothless grins, his excited squeals. I don’t know exactly when he started to lose his social and motor skills, but Rayha says she thinks it was around two years old. The diagnosis came a year later, and six years on, Zane is unable to walk, talk, make eye contact, or hold things.

When I think of what Rayha has to endure, and how much she loves her son, I feel nothing but humility and shame for my own petty problems. And yet she’s a generous enough person to be concerned about them on my behalf, while my own efforts to help her have sometimes felt paltry by comparison.

“Have you met anyone? Any nice neighbors?” Rayha asks, and I think of Rebecca, but for some reason I don’t say anything. Rayha, being such a sunny person, won’t see Rebecca the way I do. She’ll take her friendliness at face value, which would be easier for me to do if I hadn’t been there before, time and time again. I saw the way Rebecca’s lip curled when she looked at Pine Cottage, and more tellingly, when she looked at my children.

I wonder what on earth she is doing stuck here in the Finger Lakes, instead of in the Hamptons or somewhere else that’s upscale and ritzy. Or perhaps the real question is, what is she doing with me?

The screen door bangs behind me and Katherine comes out and sits next to me on the sand. I end the call with Rayha, promising to talk later, and slide the phone into the pocket of my shorts.

“Hey!” I touch Katherine lightly on the shoulder and she shies away, just a little, but enough for me to notice. To feel it. Has she always been so distant, or has it become worse with age? She’s only eleven; surely the teen angst shouldn’t start now?

“So, what do you think of this place?” I ask and she shrugs, staring out at the water. “I think if we give the cottage a bit of a clean, open a few windows…” I feel optimism buoy gently in my soul, like waves lapping the shore. I need to feel it, after the fog of the last few years, when it was hard enough just to get through each day. “It could be great, Katherine.” Just like Rayha said.

“Do we have to go there?” Katherine asks in a low voice, her gaze still on the water.

I don’t pretend not to know what she’s talking about, even though I am a little bit tempted. “It’s just dinner, Kat,” I say, using a nickname Kyle gave her that never quite stuck. “A couple of hours at most.” I can’t fault her for dreading another encounter with the mutinous Zoe, just as I am semi-dreading seeing Rebecca again, noticing how her smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “If it’s really terrible, we don’t have to see them again.”

Katherine turns to look at me suspiciously, as if she thinks I might be making a promise I can’t keep. Of course we’ll see the Finlays again; they’re our neighbors for the summer. And perhaps I shouldn’t be making such promises in the first place. Shouldn’t I be encouraging Katherine to give it a chance, to make friends in a new place? I tried to when she started at school in Park Slope two years ago, but it was so hard for both of us. I want it to be better now.

“Don’t worry so much,” I say softly, and while I mean it as encouragement, I can see from the flash of hurt in her eyes that Katherine takes it as a criticism.

The sand feels hard and cold underneath me and so I get up, extending a hand to my daughter which she hesitantly takes, her palm sliding away from mine before they’ve barely touched.

“I thought we could drive into Geneseo and pick up some groceries. See the town.”

Katherine hunches a shoulder. “Okay.”

A few minutes later, having roused Ben from the sofa, we pile into the car and head down the narrow road around the other side of the lake, to the small town of Geneseo. I drive slowly down its main street, charmed by the faded Victorian buildings, the fountain in the middle of the street. On the other side of town we find a Walmart as big as several city blocks, and far bigger than the C-Town Supermarket we shop at in Brooklyn.

Ben and Katherine’s eyes goggle as we push an enormous cart into the store, passing six-foot-high stacks of donuts in plastic containers, huge tubs of candy and caramel popcorn, sugar bomb after sugar bomb. When they were little I was much better about sugar intake; I made my own baby food and I bought organic when I could afford to. I cut up carrot sticks and julienned red pepper for their preschool snacks. At some point I stopped, maybe when my mom had her first stroke and everything started to feel like too much effort.

At some point I gave up on that persona, the mom who bustles around, volunteers endlessly, who makes homemade cakes and sneaks broccoli into brownies. And at some point Ben started inhaling sugary snacks like a junkie in need of a fix. I try not to buy them, but inevitably, exhausted, I break.

Today, though, I tell Katherine and Ben they can have one sugary snack each that will last them for the week. I wag my finger, speaking sternly, hoping to imprint this on their young minds. To show them I mean what I say, for once. “Choose carefully,” I warn. “It’s the only one you’re going to get.”

And I tell myself I’ll keep to it as I load our cart with healthy vegetables and little tubs of hummus, because the only way to be different is to start doing different things.

Back home I wipe the inside of the cabinets with a damp cloth before stacking our newly bought groceries away; there is something inherently satisfying about making this place a home, even in such a small way. Katherine asked if we could buy some plants, and even though I’m no gardener, I agreed to an azalea bush in a plastic tub that we can take back to Brooklyn with us, assuming I don’t kill it before then.

Twilight is settling over the lake as I clear up after our admittedly uninspired meal of frozen pizza straight from the freezer. I’ll cook tomorrow, or really the day after, since tomorrow we’re going to dinner at Rebecca’s.

Rebecca. I picture her tall, slender form, the knife-edge pleats on her capris, the easy, enthusiastic way she had of talking. Everything about her was effortless and elegant, like she didn’t have to try with anything. Life just comes to people like that, like fruit falling into your hand.

I wonder how much we’ll see of her and her family this summer. Our houses might not be far apart but our lives, our worlds, surely are. I’m not sure how we’ll manage to fill an evening with conversation, never mind a whole summer. But perhaps we won’t see the Finlays very much.

While Katherine and Ben get ready for bed, I slip outside onto the darkened bit of beach and sit down on the hard, cool sand. I can’t put it off any longer, I need to call Kyle.

His cell rings four times, and with each shrill, persistent ring I get more and more tense. We didn’t part on the best of terms, although I can’t say it was particularly acrimonious. It simply was—the silence, the sighs, the feeling that I’m letting him down again somehow.

The decision for me to go away for the summer was entirely my idea and it ended in a standoff, with Kyle, exhausted from working a nine-to-five job he hates, seeming bitter that I’m spending more of his money on something he won’t even enjoy, and then shrugging his agreement. I know he resents that I don’t work a nine-to-five job like he does, but I wanted to be there when the kids were little, and childcare was so ridiculously expensive, it wasn’t even worth it for me to go back to work. Now they’re in school someone still needs to be able to stay home when they’re sick, and go to the school plays, and pick up the dry-cleaning, and all the rest.

Finally, just when I think it’s going to switch over to voicemail, Kyle picks up. “Tessa? Are you okay?” His voice sounds abrupt.

“Hey! Yeah, I’m fine.” I gaze out at a few distant, twinkling lights on the water; someone is out on a boat, enjoying the dusky, purple twilight. “We made it.”

“How is it?”

“Fine. Good. The lake is beautiful.” Kyle doesn’t answer and I close my eyes, wondering how to navigate this moment, as with so many others. Even from hundreds of miles away the tension feels unbearable, hostility tautening the silence. “Thank you for making it happen,” I say stiltedly. I feel I owe him that much at least, despite his reluctance to spend four thousand dollars on a summer rental. “I know you weren’t that keen, but I think it will be really good for the kids to be here.”

“I hope so,” he says. “I hope it’s good for all of you.”

There is a subtext to the sentiment that I can’t discern. Is he saying it spitefully, or is he implying that we’ve needed this break from each other, that he’d rather I wasn’t there? Oh, the minefields. Rayha has told me that all marriages go through rocky patches; her own marriage lasted for five years before Zane’s issues drove her husband away. He lives in California now and never visits. Again, I feel like I have nothing to complain about. Nothing to feel unhappy about. And yet… I can’t shake the nebulous yet insistent feeling that something is very wrong. Something has been very wrong for a while, and I don’t know what it is or how to fix it.

“What have you been up to?” I ask.

“Work.” What else? is the implication, and for some reason that stings a little. I know he will miss Ben and Katherine, but he’s got a lot of freedom… freedom to watch what he wants on TV, eat what he likes, take up the whole bed. And who knows what else?

That treacherous little voice unsettles me, because I haven’t let myself think that way. I know things are bad with Kyle, but surely we haven’t hit that low, I hope.

“Are you going to relax on the weekend? Go for a bike ride?” The bike that takes up half our living room and which Kyle hardly ever uses. I didn’t mean it as a dig, but belatedly I realize it could sound like one.

“Maybe. It’s over ninety degrees, though, so I don’t know.” Kyle lets out a sigh. “I’m glad you got there safely and that you’re okay. Are Ben and Katherine around? I’ll say hi.”

I walk back inside to hand the phone to Katherine, and then Ben, half-listening to their monosyllabic replies as I wipe down the kitchen counters. Kyle hangs up, or Ben disconnects the call, I don’t know which, before I can talk to him again and say goodbye, which is more of a relief than a disappointment.

“Why doesn’t Daddy come here for the weekends?” Katherine suggests when she and Ben are tucked in their beds. Moths hurl themselves against the window screens with a rat-a-tat-tat sound and in the distance I hear a motorboat’s engine being suddenly cut. Compared to the noise of the city, it feels eerily quiet, deathly still.

“It’s expensive.” I sit on the edge of Katherine’s bed, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder. I made up the two narrow camp beds in the second bedroom with the mustard-yellow sheets in the linen cupboard, after airing them outside for a little while. Ben is lying on top of the sheets, already sweaty even though the night is turning cool. He radiates heat like he’s full of atomic energy.

“Still.” Katherine pleats the sheet beneath her fingers and I let my hand drop. “He could come up some weekends, couldn’t he?”

Yes, he could, and I suggested as much when I first floated the idea of a rental past him. He agreed it was a good idea, but we made no firm plans. “Why don’t you ask him? Maybe he can come up for Fourth of July, in a couple of weeks.”

Katherine finally smiles properly—the first time she has since we’ve been here—I don’t let this hurt me. She has always been closer to Kyle than me, although his affection sometimes feels easy, careless. He used to toss her up in the air and tickle her; he buys her and Ben cupcakes on Saturday mornings; he effuses praise over her spelling test without bothering to notice the mistakes.

Everything difficult falls to me—the discipline, the cleaning up, the worry. And while I admit I might have dropped the ball for a little while, wallowing in my own grief, I’ve picked it up now while Kyle has never really bothered, at least not the way I have.

I give Ben and Katherine a quick hug goodnight before I close the door to their bedroom and then stand in the middle of the living room, listening to the stillness, trying not to feel lonely.

Now what?

I brought all my card-making supplies here—the cardstock, the fine-tip markers, the glitter and paint and sequins. I’m in the middle of working on a congratulations card, and this would surely be a good time to finish it.

Last year, when Kyle kept telling me I needed to do something, I suggested I try my own card-making business, make use of my art degree. He was cautiously encouraging, and so I started small, setting up my own online shop on Etsy, filling a few orders. Admittedly, after buying all the supplies, I don’t turn much of a profit, but it’s something, and Kyle no longer asks me to take up the kind of corporate job he’s suffered in since I got pregnant with Katherine.

We met, twenty years ago now, as freshmen at NYU. I was into art, Kyle into music, both of us determined to live the bohemian lifestyle, or at least a twenty-first-century version of it. Unfortunately, as we both discovered over the years, idealism didn’t pay the rent. Neither did busking or selling sketches in Central Park, fun as it all was.

But the people we were then—determined, dreamy, truly believing the world was ours for the taking—have long ago left the building. I don’t know where they are now.

From the bedroom I hear Ben tossing and turning, the springs of the cot creaking beneath him, and Katherine’s irritated sighs. They share a room back in Brooklyn, but it’s bigger than theirs here. It’s hard to believe this place is a step down from our small sixth-floor walk-up, with the kitchen tacked on the back and a bathroom you can barely stand up in, but take the lake out of the equation and it is. I walk outside, breathing in the cool night air, trying to recapture some of the optimism I felt earlier. But instead worries pluck at me as I realize the hugeness of the decision I’ve made. A whole summer in a strange place. How are we going to fill our days? What friends will we make? What is Kyle going to do all summer?

I sit on the sand and rest my chin on my knees, gazing out at the dark water, fighting the sweep of loneliness that always threatens to crash over me in moments like this. When I feel alone and lonely, I wish I could talk to my mom, because she was always ready to listen, always got where I was coming from. She’d put her arm around my shoulders, touch her head to mine. Just thinking about her brings the sting of tears to my eyes, and I can almost imagine I am breathing in her scent—Shalimar, the citrusy notes of lemon and bergamot.

A movement from next door catches my eye, and I turn to see Rebecca silhouetted in the picture window overlooking the water. I watch her slender, willowy form; she’s standing still, her head tilted upwards… what is she thinking? Feeling?

For the first time, I feel a flicker of genuine curiosity about who Rebecca is and why she’s here, as well as a reluctant tug of fascination. Is her life as easy and effortless as it seems from the outside? Is she feeling lonely, standing all by herself in that big house, an evening stretching out in front of her just as it is in front of me? I feel like I’m being fanciful, that someone like Rebecca Finlay couldn’t possibly feel the way I do, ever. Of course she couldn’t.



By four thirty the next day I am starting to regret my invitation to Tessa and her kids. Zoe has been particularly difficult, throwing a tantrum about missing sailing that morning, and for some reason deciding to take it out on Charlotte, who couldn’t care less about being in a boat. Max was quietly, desperately relieved; sports of any kind terrify him.

And the truth is, I wouldn’t have missed their sailing lessons if I hadn’t been hungover. I’d ended up picking up a bottle of wine on the way home from the country club yesterday, popping it in with the milk and bread we definitely needed, ignoring Zoe’s sharp gaze. She’s nine years old. She probably doesn’t even know what it is.

I’d only meant to have one glass, but the evening felt endless and it was a surprisingly good red, so I had three. I wasn’t drunk. I wouldn’t get drunk, not when I’m the sole caregiver for my three young children. I’m not that far gone. Not yet, anyway.

In any case, it was enough to take the edge off last night, and then for me to feel regrettably hungover this morning, so when I heard the children getting up and clattering downstairs for breakfast, I simply rolled over and put the pillow over my head. I think Charlotte must have crept in at some point, and then returned downstairs to get cereal for the others. But at ten minutes to ten Zoe came in, banging the door shut behind her, and stood at the end of my bed, scowling, her hands on her hips.

“Our sailing lesson is in ten minutes.”

I blinked up at her blearily, feeling woolly-headed, thick-tongued. “Not today, Zoe. I can’t.”

“But we only go sailing twice a week!” Her voice came out in a shriek and I winced. “We’ll miss it!”

“Yes,” I snapped, making my head pound, “you will.” And then I rolled over, my back to her. It was mean, I know, and completely unmotherly, but I didn’t have it in me to do anything else. I really didn’t.

I winced again as Zoe slammed the door behind her, feeling worse than ever. It was hard to believe that once I’d been a smug and complacent mother, so sure I was getting it all so very right. I didn’t have a single qualm, not one. I sailed through life, and everyone followed in my wake. I started losing that person nearly four months ago, and now I feel like I’ll never get her back. Like she never even existed.

After another miserable half-hour in bed, I manage to drag myself out of bed and to the shower, and then downstairs. The children are sitting in the huge family room off the kitchen, watching TV and looking morose. Bright sunshine spills through the huge picture window, a reprimand. It is a day for going outside, breathing everything in.

“Well, then,” I say gaily, once I’ve poured my first cup of coffee and taken a much-needed sip. “Isn’t it nice to have a lazy morning?”

Zoe turns to stare resentfully at me, and none of them utter a word. “Why don’t you all get your suits on and we’ll have a swim?”

We haven’t actually done much swimming in the lake yet. We’ve been so busy with sailing and tennis and swim lessons at the club, using the house as little more than a place to sleep and eat.

“We’re swimming at the club later,” Charlotte points out with a long-suffering sigh. She is sitting on the sofa, managing to look both beautiful and bored, and very slightly disdainful.

“We can swim here too. That’s why we’re on the lake, isn’t it?” My head is pounding but I force a smile to my lips. “I’ll come in, too.”

I haven’t actually yet been in the water, but guilt over drinking too much and then missing sailing lessons propels me into the pale pink tankini that still has its tags, and then to walk down the dock with Charlotte, Max, and Zoe, staring uncertainly at the smooth, ripple-less expanse of lake.

“Jump in, Mommy!” Max entreats, and Zoe dares to give me a push, enough that I almost lose my balance.

I gaze down at the three faces of my children—the people most important to me in the world—and feel a sudden, strong spasm of love, momentarily blotting out the numbness that has served as a thin veneer over the swirling depths of my interior life. The warmth of the feeling reassures me.

“All right!” I take a deep breath and then a running leap off the end of the dock. The cold water closes over me, shocking my system, dragging me under. For a second I am back in Wisconsin, at the lake house where I spent all my summers, a rambling place a lot like this one, with a lake colder and deeper. I can hear my brothers’ laughter, my little sister Taylor. The memory is drenched in sunshine, tinged with darkness.

I emerge from the water with something close to a gasp; Max and Charlotte are cheering and even Zoe looks vaguely impressed. It’s so wonderfully easy to please children sometimes, and so woefully difficult at others. I’m glad I got it right this time.

We swim for about an hour, out to the raft and back, flipping onto our backs, diving deep, cavorting like seals. It’s fun but also exhausting, and after a while I haul myself out of the water and lie belly down on the sun-warmed dock for a few moments, my legs still in the water, like a landed fish. I haven’t worked out in a while, and it shows.

“Mom, are you all right?” Charlotte calls, caught between anxiety and amusement at my clumsiness, and I manage a laugh. Of course I’m all right; I have to be.

“Just need to do a few more sit-ups, I think, sweetie.” With what feels like superhuman strength I manage to drag the rest of my body out of the water. I sit on the dock and watch the three of them splash around for a bit, but without me there jollying them along, they lose interest. Max has never liked the water very much, and when Zoe splashes him, he crawls onto the dock with silent dignity, shivering. Charlotte floats on her back, in her own serene world as always, above everyone and everything else.

We troop back inside to have lunch and get ready for swim lessons. And then after swimming, Tessa and her children are coming for dinner… a prospect that now fills me with weariness. I don’t have the energy to perform anymore today.

But somehow I plow through the lessons, the meaningless chitchat with several club members, and even being cornered by a well-intentioned, beady-eyed forty-something who invites me to the ladies’ doubles morning on Wednesday. I demur, telling her I have a long-term wrist injury.

As soon as we’re out in the parking lot, Zoe turns to me and demands in a loud voice, “Why did you lie to that woman, Mommy? You don’t have a wrist injury.”

Both Max and Charlotte look at me curiously, Charlotte’s eyebrows slightly raised, waiting for my answer. I try not to grit my teeth. “Because I don’t want to play tennis but it was too difficult to explain that to her.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a grownup thing, Zoe. You wouldn’t understand.”

“You always say that when you don’t feel like explaining something,” she snaps, flouncing off.

God help clever children. “Get in the car,” I order. “The McIntyres are coming in less than an hour.”

“You could have just said,” Charlotte says, so quietly I almost don’t hear, “couldn’t you? To that woman?”

I meet her calm gaze in the rearview mirror and feel a ripple of unease. All of my children are far too eagle-eyed, too sharp. “Yes,” I say after a second. “I suppose I could have.”

By the time five o’clock hits I’m feeling edgy and fragile. Zoe, as usual, has picked up on my mood, and has started a fight with Max, her easy target. Charlotte tries to placate them, and ends up getting in a fight with Zoe; loftily, she says she’s not going to fight with babies, sending Zoe into a frenzy. In a near panic I banish them all to the playroom so I can pace the kitchen in peace.

I bought a bunch of frozen pizzas for dinner but now it feels lazy. I should have cooked some gourmet, all-organic meal. I should have made some cookies, at least. What kind of mother am I?

That’s a question I try not to ask these days, much less answer. For the last few months I’ve just been drifting, pulled by a relentless current I can’t control. But the tide is getting stronger, pulling me out into the wide open sea, and then what kind of mother will I be? What kind of woman? Still, right now I’m treading water at least, if only just.

None of the children seem particularly enthused to meet the McIntyres. Zoe’s fury aside, they’ve been fairly nonplussed about our living arrangements here in the Finger Lakes, a place they’d never even heard of until I recklessly booked the cottage, after Josh suggested I spend the summer in Wisconsin, under the eagle eye of my parents. The Hamptons, clearly, were out. Josh agreed with my plan reluctantly; I could tell he wanted someone looking out for me, keeping me in line, but I assured him I would be fine. He wanted to believe me.

My insides clench as I picture his face, the way his mouth turned down in disappointment, his eyes clouding, every time he looked at me in the last few months. I’m failing him, I know I am. But what he doesn’t realize, what I haven’t been able to explain to him, is how he is failing me.

At exactly five o’clock I see, from the huge picture window, Tessa and her two children troop out of their house and down the path toward ours.

“Zoe, Charlotte, Max, they’re coming,” I sound, unintentionally, as if we’re bracing for invaders.

The deck stairs creak under their combined weight and I hear their light tread: thump, thump, thump. Then they are standing on the deck in front of the sliding glass door, all looking rather morose, although when Tessa sees me she smiles.

She’s clearly tried to make a bit of an effort with a pair of wrinkled capris and a t-shirt that has a scalloped edge, but she still looks rather dowdy, and now that I’ve seen her hair when it’s dry, I realize what a frizzy nightmare it is. Has she not heard of straighteners?

“Hello!” My voice rings out in a merry peal as I open the door and step aside so they can come through. “So nice to see you! Thank you so much for coming.”

Katherine thrusts a plate of cookies at me, mumbling something, and I continue to effuse.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have! We’ll gobble these up, I have no doubt.” I laugh, the sound tinkling, crystalline. I feel myself relax into the role; my weariness slides off like a snakeskin. I’ve done this so many times before. It’s still easy, thank God.

“Thank you for having us,” Tessa says. She is standing in the middle of the family room, trying not to look uncomfortable. “It’s really kind of you.”

“It’s no trouble, honestly.” I put the plate of cookies on the counter; they look like they came out of one of those prepackaged tubes. “Just pizzas.”

“We had pizza last night,” Ben says, and Tessa shoots him a dagger-like look.

“You can never have too much pizza, can you?” I say lightly. “Now, my three are upstairs in the games room, why don’t I show you the way?” Ben and Katherine don’t move and Tessa nudges Katherine between her shoulder blades, giving her an encouraging smile while Ben starts kicking the sofa legs.

“Come on, you two,” I say cheerfully. “There’s a PlayStation and a pool table and air hockey, I think.”

“Goodness,” Tessa murmurs as we all head up to the top floor of the house, to the large playroom full of sunshine pouring in from a huge skylight. Max is sitting on one edge of a leather sofa reading, his knees drawn up to his chest, and Charlotte is on the other, her hands folded in her lap, that slightly remote, slightly superior look on her face that I know so well. Nothing fazes my oldest daughter. She’s almost more in control, more cool, than I would like. Zoe stands in the center of the room, chin thrust out, defending her domain.

“Hey, everyone, Ben and Katherine are here!” I announce this as if it is the best news ever, and receive blank stares in response. Ben and Katherine lurk behind me, along with Tessa. Good grief, do I have to do all the work?

“Cool, air hockey!” Ben says, and he pushes past me to start sliding the puck along the table with a dangerous level of enthusiasm. Max eyes him warily, and Zoe looks furious that he’s touching our stuff. Katherine and Charlotte both stay still and silent.

“Well, then.” I clap my hands lightly. “I’ll leave you all to it. Have fun, all right? I’ll call you for dinner in about an hour.”

“An hour!” A yelp from Max, who immediately looks woebegone.

“Have fun,” I repeat firmly. I’m not deluding myself that they’re all going to become best friends over the course of a single evening, but how hard can it be to endure an hour together?

“Do you think…” Tessa begins, but she trails off before finishing that thought as I march gaily downstairs, breathing a sigh of relief as I come into the kitchen and open the fridge.

“Now, on to really important matters. Red or white?”


I hold up an unopened bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the fridge with a determined smile. “We have this or a Pinot Noir…”

“Oh, uh, white, please.”

“Perfect.” I take two wine glasses out of the cupboard and fill them to the brim. This is what I’ve been waiting for all day—that first refreshing sip. My hangover of the morning has disappeared, leaving me craving and restless.

I’m not an alcoholic, not even a high-functioning one, no matter what it might seem like right now. If I have to have that label slapped on me, then I’m a temporary, expedient one, because I know what I need to get through this period of my life. And hopefully it is just a period, and not the rest of it. Alcohol is nothing more than my finger in the hole of the dam, plugging the dark tide I’m not ready to deal with. “Cheers,” I say, and hand Tessa her glass.

We move toward the sofas in the adjoining family room, and I relax into the buttery suede as I take another sip and feel the wine already start to relax me.

“Cheers.” Tessa perches on the edge of her seat, her glass clutched to her chest. Her gaze keeps darting to the stairs.

“They’ll be fine,” I say. “Kids always get along eventually, don’t they?”

“It would be nice to think so.” She lets out an uncertain laugh.

“So, Tessa,” I ask, settling back into my seat and taking another sip of wine, “what made you rent in the Finger Lakes?”

Tessa looks startled, as if I’ve asked her something personal. Perhaps I have. Who knows what sent her to Upstate New York—a worried and disappointed husband, like mine? A doomed affair? A desperate bid for freedom?

“I don’t know, it just seemed like a nice place. And… the rent was cheap.”

“It certainly is. About a tenth of the Hamptons.” Last summer we spent nearly a hundred grand on our summer vacation, and I have friends who spend even more without blinking an eye. Not that I’d be so crass as to name actual figures.

“Oh, I bet!” Tessa manages another laugh. She obviously doesn’t have money, just as I obviously do. I’d feel guilty if it weren’t so glaringly apparent, a fact that doesn’t need stating, even in an oblique way.

“So, tell me about yourself,” I invite. “Have you lived in Brooklyn long? Do you work?” I smile, lean forward as if I’m about to hang onto her every word, because the truth is, I am interested. I want to hear about someone else’s life, and I need to forget about mine. “I want to know everything.”



I sit on Rebecca’s sofa as she waits expectantly for my answer, seemingly interested in me. Fascinated by me. My children have been at the public school in Park Slope for a year, and I’ve shown up every single morning and afternoon, smiling hopefully, trying to make chitchat, and no parent there has shown as much interest in me or my life as Rebecca Finlay has. It’s weird, but it’s also nice. More than nice. It feels a bit like stumbling upon a sip of water when you’ve been in an endless social desert.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her with a laugh, because the truth is I’m too dazzled to think of anything clever. Yes, I am dazzled by Rebecca. I judged her a snob; I dismissed her as someone I could easily hate, and yet I can’t help but admire her effortlessness—and envy her life. Who wouldn’t? This house is huge. She’s so skinny. And her children seem perfect too—a dreamy boy, a lithe, self-contained girl, and of course Zoe, who might be bratty but at least she’s self-assured. I wish Katherine had a tenth of her self-confidence.

And the fact that Rebecca is interested in me… it’s the icing on the cake. Almost too sweet to be true, and yet also irresistible. I am pulled in by her smile, her raised eyebrows, everything about her engaged and interested… in me.

“Tell me anything,” she says with an insouciant shrug of her slender shoulders. She’s wearing a black maxi dress that would make me look like a fat, frumpy widow, but on her it seems the height of chic. Her legs are tucked up, her feet, with magenta-polished toenails, bare. Her hair is loose about her face, and falls in a corn-silk waterfall nearly to her shoulders. Her blue eyes are wide, eyebrows perfectly plucked. She practically looks airbrushed. “I want to know it all.”

Of course my mind is a blank. I know I must look slack-jawed and stupid, staring at Rebecca, while she is the poster child for a perfect mother. How could she possibly be interested in me?

“Well, you—you know I live in Brooklyn,” I finally stutter, and she nods as if I’ve said something scintillating. I kind of love her and hate her at the same time.

“Right… which part? Not,” she adds with one of her tinkling laughs and a cutely wrinkled nose, “like I know Brooklyn all that well, to be honest.”

She’s probably never even been there, no matter what she said yesterday. “Park Slope.”

“Ooh, Park Slope. A mom from school moved there, I think…” Her forehead wrinkles.

“It’s nice. Really… pretty. The Brownstones are gorgeous.” I’m annoyed with how stupid I sound. I wasn’t always like this. In college I had plenty of friends as well as confidence. I was so sure of myself, in a way I haven’t felt in years. Where did that go? Why did it go? Was it motherhood, or losing my own mom, or the failure of my artistic dreams? All three perhaps, and more besides. Somehow I’ve ended up here, a dismal shadow of myself, but at least I am trying to step back into the light.

“I’m sure, I’m sure it is beautiful.” Rebecca has almost finished her wine and her head is lolling back against the sofa. She seems utterly at ease, totally relaxed—is she not worried about our children upstairs? I’ve heard several thumps that have put me on edge, and I’m as worried about Ben pummeling her son as I am about Katherine being bullied or at least overshadowed by Zoe, and even Charlotte, whose quiet stillness radiates confidence rather than fear. But maybe I’m being ridiculous; maybe I’m being the kind of helicopter mom I’d assume Rebecca to be, except she doesn’t seem that bothered right now.

“So, have you lived in Park Slope long?” she asks, and I get the prickly sense that this conversation is akin to pushing a boulder uphill for her, but I’m not sure how to help.

“We’ve been in Brooklyn for fifteen years, since we got married, but only in Park Slope for one.”

“We?” One eyebrow delicately arches.

“My husband and I. Kyle.” I smile, almost apologetically. I don’t really want to talk about Kyle, or the way I’ve caught him looking at me, as if he’s wondering how he ended up where he did, with someone like me. Or am I the one wondering that? I don’t know anymore; I don’t know what went wrong between us, only that something did. He texted this morning, just to check in, and also to ask if I’d picked up the dry-cleaning before I’d left. I hadn’t.

“Kyle,” Rebecca repeats, rolling the syllable around like a fine wine.

“What about you? You live in Manhattan…”

“Upper East Side.” She makes a face. “Couldn’t you guess?”

I laugh, surprised. “Yeah, I suppose I could.”

Rebecca stretches her legs out, toes pointed like a ballet dancer. “Well, I’d hate to surprise you by being different. We’ve lived there for fifteen years.”

“We?” I echo her, even if I can’t quite manage the eyebrow arch.

For a second Rebecca’s expression freezes, like she’s been caught in a spotlight or even a trap, but it’s so faint and fleeting that I think I must have imagined it. She tucks her legs back underneath her, the black dress floating out around her in a gentle bell shape.

“My husband, Josh. He works on Wall Street. A summer bachelor.”

Summer bachelor. I think I’ve heard the term for Manhattan men who make a lot of money while their wives and children hightail it to the Hamptons. “I guess Kyle is one, too.” I really don’t like the phrase; it makes it seem as if I’ve been forgotten. Erased.

“Hopefully he won’t get into too much trouble.”

Another prospect that fills me with alarm. “So why the Finger Lakes?” I ask. I feel bolder now; perhaps it’s the wine. “Because that does surprise me. I would have expected you to go to the Hamptons.” Religiously.

“Oh, but I can’t be that boring, can I? Anyway, I wanted a change. Something a little more low-key.” Rebecca laughs, giving an easy shrug.

“Do you know anyone here?”

“No, but there’s a club for swimming and tennis lessons, and the lake is right on our doorstep. What more do we need?”

“My thoughts exactly.” Minus the club. Still, I am surprised. I would have expected a woman like Rebecca—although perhaps I don’t actually know who a woman like Rebecca is—to demand a full summer social life, complete with cocktail parties and charity balls. Maybe she is different, deeper, than I first assumed. Maybe, just maybe, she could actually become a friend. The thought is so surprising and novel that it makes me smile.

“I know,” Rebecca says, in that over-jolly tone she used when she invited us for dinner. “Why don’t you join the club? It’s a lifesaver for lessons, and keeps the kids busy. Tennis, swimming, sailing…”

For a second I wonder if she is being spiteful, like the women on the playground, eyes rounding innocently. Oh, were you not invited? But Rebecca is smiling at me so openly and expectantly that I realize she isn’t. She just has no idea that something like that would most definitely not be in my price range.

“I’d love to,” I answer, although I’m not sure I would, “but I’m sure it’s way out of our league.”

“Oh, trust me it’s not. Honestly, the men are all in plaid pants and golf shirts. It’s ridiculous.” I stare at her, unsure how to reply, and then her expression changes. “Oh, you mean the membership fees…?” I sort of nod, and she dismisses the finances with a flick of her fingers. “Honestly, it’s not that much. Peanuts compared to Manhattan.” I can’t think of anything to say and Rebecca shrugs, smiling. “Well, think about it, at least. You could come just for the day, as our guests, try it out. I suppose I should put the pizzas in.” She uncurls herself from the sofa and moves across the room with fluid grace, the long black folds of the dress whispering about her endless legs. “Sorry it’s just pizza,” she calls as she takes out half a dozen gourmet pizzas, the kind that are too expensive for me to buy, from the freezer. “Especially since Ben had it last night.” She says his name carelessly, like she’s known him a long time, as if he’s a friend.

“How were you supposed to know that?” I answer with a laugh. I walk over to the huge granite island, my half-drunk glass dangling from my fingers. I feel deliciously relaxed all of a sudden; it must be the wine. I’ve never been much of a drinker, and half a glass goes to my head.

“Anyway, kids never mind pizza, do they?” Rebecca rips open the boxes with quick efficiency and then slides the pizzas into the huge double oven built into one wall. She nods to my glass. “It looks like you need a refill.”

“Oh, no…” I must sound halfhearted—I know I feel it—because Rebecca wags a finger at me and heads over to the huge, subzero fridge.

“Now, now! It’s summer, time to relax.” She tops up my glass as well as her own, dancing around the kitchen with it for a second, her eyes sparkling, her dress flaring out around her legs. “No one to impress, right? No school run, no awful PTA meetings, nothing. We’re finally free. Free to be you and me.” She laughs, tilting her head back so I can see the elegant column of her throat as she takes a deep sip from her glass.

I find myself smiling back and taking a similar sip; there’s something wonderfully contagious about Rebecca, something that makes me want to be like her. That wonders, incredulously, if I already am, at least a little bit. It’s as if her sparkles rub off, shower over me. I bask in her light.

And it’s both difficult and encouraging to think that, like me, Rebecca sometimes dreads the humdrum life of the stay-at-home mom. We wouldn’t change it, of course we wouldn’t, but it can still feel like a life sentence. Like me, she came here to be free, to be different. And that we is so wonderful, the idea that we might be complicit in something. We might actually be friends. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a friend, the kind I see every day, kick back with coffee or wine, walk home from school together. Rayha is great, but her life makes it impossible to see her very often, and texts and phone calls don’t always feel like enough.

Rebecca takes another long swallow of wine. “Tell me the truth, Tessa. Aren’t you the tiniest bit relieved to be away from all of it? The city, school, friends, even your husband?” She smiles mischievously. “Honestly, now. Confession time, since it’s just the two of us.”

“Well…” I feel nervous, shy, like a girl on a first date. “Yes, actually. I needed to get away from it all, husband included.”

“Tell me about it.” She groans theatrically, the sparkle still in her eyes. “Men.”

“What did you want to get away from?” I ask. “I mean, the most?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Her gaze slides away from mine, her answer deliberately vague, and I feel disappointed by her prevarication. Then she turns back with a smile and a shrug. “Just… the whole slog of life, you know? The endless running around, the social calendar, the afterschool clubs, all the demands and endless expectations… It’s all so tedious, isn’t it, really?”

“Do you have any help here? Besides the lessons, I mean?”

She purses her lips. “No, not here. I had a nanny in New York, before the children were in school. But we could hardly justify it afterwards, you know? It’s not like I work.” She laughs and takes another sip of wine.

“Did you work before kids?”

Rebecca shrugs dismissively. “Oh, you know, nothing much. I was the receptionist for an art gallery for a few years, although my title was ‘assistant curator’ or something.” She rolls her eyes. “My father knew a friend of a friend and got me the job. I didn’t do much more than answer phones and file—my nails.” She lets out a trill of laughter and then drains her glass before heading to the fridge.

“More wine,” she announces, even though I haven’t touched mine since she topped up our glasses, and my head is already swimming.

“None for me,” I protest, and Rebecca shrugs and fills her own glass, a challenging look lighting her eyes for a second. I wonder what, if anything, seethes beneath her insouciance, because right now it feels as if something does. But then we all have secrets, don’t we? Parts of ourselves we want to hide, things we don’t want to remember? Even someone like Rebecca Finlay. It makes me feel even closer to her, to know that she’s not actually perfect. That there might be a few hairline cracks in her life, just as there are a few gaping craters in mine.

“It’s summer,” she says with another expansive shrug. “Time to relax, right?”

“Right.” Of course it is. I smile and Rebecca smiles back and raises her glass in a toast. A sudden thud from upstairs, followed by noisy wailing, has me freezing, a familiar panic flooding through me, and Rebecca puts down her wine glass.

“Sounds like someone had a bump,” she says cheerfully, but I can’t answer because my panic is turning into an icy dread.

I’ve been in this position before, too many times. Called into classrooms, or arriving after playdates or birthday parties, back when we still had invitations to those. A teacher’s pursed lips, a mother’s disapproving frown. A child’s tears. And, as ever, Ben had been too loud, too rough, too rude, and didn’t seem to realize—or care.

I always made him apologize, always explained he was just a little boisterous, because that’s what the pediatrician said, and what I wanted and needed to believe. There were a few teachers through the years who were determined to slap a label on him, prescribe pills for what others called “natural boy energy”.

I think I might have actually felt reassured by a prescription, a solution, but Kyle didn’t want to go down that route, and really, underneath my fear, neither did I. Once a child is diagnosed, labeled, he never escapes it. And Ben isn’t so difficult that he needs a label, or so I continue to tell myself.

When we get upstairs, Max is in the corner, cradling his hand in front of him, tears streaking his little face. Katherine is standing by the door, looking alarmed, and Zoe and Ben are in a standoff, fists clenched, glaring at each other. Charlotte is presiding, her hands flung out in a dramatic fashion as she glances quellingly between them, graceful and superior.

“Mommy, he hit Max!” Zoe screeches as soon as we appear.

“I told him he had to apologize,” Charlotte says. She sounds admirably calm and adult.

“Oh dear, I’m sure it was an accident,” Rebecca says as she places a placating hand on Zoe’s shoulder. “Wasn’t it, Ben?”

Ben shrugs and doesn’t reply, and my heart sinks even further. Couldn’t he have at least said it was? “What happened, Max?” I ask as gently as I can. Please, please, let him say it was an accident.

“It wasn’t an accident,” Zoe seethes. She is incandescent with rage, her face flushed, her eyes glittering. There is far too much emotion for her little body, just as there is far too much energy for Ben’s. Perhaps they are more alike than they realize, these infantile adversaries. Max sniffs.

“He hit him with the air hockey puck,” Charlotte explains. “While they were playing.”

“He aimed it right at his hand,” Zoe adds, her tone as vicious as her glare aimed at my son.

“I wasn’t trying to hit him,” Ben says sullenly. “I just wanted to play.”

“Well, then,” Rebecca says, as if somehow this makes it all better. She pats Max on the shoulder. “You’re all right, aren’t you, sweetheart? We’ll put an icepack on it, just in case.”

Max sniffs and nods, and then forlornly follows Rebecca downstairs. I pause, wanting to say something to smooth it all over, willing Ben to look at me, but he refuses, and so does Katherine. Zoe, however, makes it up for me by giving me a full-on glare.

Downstairs Max is sitting at the kitchen table with a pack of frozen peas pressed to his hand, looking miserable. Rebecca seems unbothered as she checks on the pizzas, and really, I’m not sure what to make of it all.

My experience with other mothers—mothers I assumed were like Rebecca—has been a groveling walk of shame, apologizing for Ben, for myself as a mother, even for existing, or at least that’s what it has felt like over the years. Rebecca, however, isn’t giving me the flinty-eyed glare I’ve come to expect and dread; she’s buzzing around the kitchen, humming under her breath.

“I’m sorry…” I begin, and she gives a little laugh.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. Boys will be boys, won’t they?”

“I suppose.” Although Max and Ben seem polar opposites in terms of how boys act.

“Max is fine, aren’t you?” She tosses him a glance. “Nothing some pizza and ice cream won’t cure.” She takes out a stack of brightly colored plastic plates and plops them on the counter.

“Let me do something,” I say. I feel the need to be useful.

“You can get the cups…” Rebecca glances around vaguely, and then the landline rings, the loud, bright trill seeming to split the air. Rebecca stills, and for a second I think she’s not going to answer it, but then before she can, the ringing stops.

She is just sliding the pizzas out of the oven when we hear the sound of someone thudding down the stairs, and then Zoe comes in, brandishing a cordless phone.

“Mommy, Granny is on the phone!”

A strange look comes over Rebecca’s face for a moment, and then she smiles. “All right, Zo.” She throws me an apologetic glance. “Do you mind slicing the pizzas? I’ll only be a minute.”

“No, of course not,” I say, but Rebecca is already gone, disappearing down the hall. I hear the click of a door shutting, the sound strangely final.

“Okay, then.” I turn to Zoe and Max, determined to appear competent and cheerful. Zoe, at least, is not fooled. She scowls at me, her arms folded. “Why don’t you call the others, Zoe? I’ll start slicing.”

For a second I think she’s going to resist, her lower lip jutting out, but then she shrugs and stomps upstairs. I find a pizza cutter and start making slices.

A few minutes later Ben, Katherine, and Charlotte come downstairs, and I breathe a silent sigh of relief that they’re all in one piece and no one is crying. Ben glances at Max and then punches him lightly in the shoulder. Max flinches, but I know Ben meant it as a sign of solidarity.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” he says, and I can’t tell if he’s trying to cheer Max up or make him feel wimpy.

I am doling out slices onto plates, the children silent and rather morose, when Rebecca comes into the kitchen, the phone in her hand, her eyes bright, her smile hard and wide.

“Right,” she says, and tosses the phone aside, where it clatters onto the counter. There is something contained yet manic about her, something that feels almost feral, and apprehension ripples through me. Her eyes glitter as she nods toward the table. “Shall we eat?”



I am barely aware of my movements as I get plates and pizza and drinks, not looking anyone in the eye. Not daring to. I feel if I make contact, I might split apart; I might shatter.

“What did Granny want?” Zoe demands once the children are all, thankfully, seated around the table. “And why didn’t you let us talk to Grandad?”

“Zoe, they were busy. Grandad was about to play golf.” I shake my head, smiling. At least I think I do. I feel like I have to check, make sure I’m acting the way I think I’m acting. Coming across the way I need to. In my worst moments over the last four months, it’s been like this—as if I am two people, checking on my visible self, making sure she still seems normal and sane, the surface as smooth as ever. I really don’t know if I’ve succeeded.

“Why did they call?” Zoe persists. She never, ever knows when to stop. Never gauges a mood or heeds a warning, or at least chooses not to.

“Just to say hello.” There is a definite edge to my voice, not that my youngest daughter notices. I’m not ready to tell her more than that. I want another glass of wine, I crave it, but I think Tessa was looking at me a bit oddly when I poured the last one, and the truth is, I am feeling more than a little buzzed. I don’t need any more; never mind the craving.

“Where do your parents live?” Tessa asks.

“Wisconsin,” Zoe answers for me. “On a much better lake than this one.” She shoots me one of her challenging glares, which I choose to ignore.

We all sit down to eat, but if there ever was a mood, it’s definitely gone a little sour. Max continues to look completely woebegone, and Zoe is still angry about Ben hitting him—whether it was by accident or not, I can’t tell. Ben is only a year older than Max but feels almost twice his size, nine going on fifteen, by the looks of him. As for Katherine… she keeps darting shy looks at Charlotte, who seems to be unintentionally—or maybe not—ignoring her. They’re the same age, both quiet and contained; there’s no reason they can’t be friends. Why does it have to be so hard?

Suddenly I feel impatient with everyone, ready to snap. I barely touch my pizza and I almost debate whether it’s worth getting the ice cream out after; I just want everyone gone. But at the same time, I can’t bear the prospect of being alone with my own thoughts, my own self.

So I pull out the tubs of ice cream and the cones and sprinkles and squirty bottles of chocolate and caramel sauce I bought on the way home from tennis, and it’s enough for the kids to start looking cheerful. They make their cones and a mess along with them, and then I shoo them outside, watching them all loiter on the deck before I tap on the glass and point to the yard, with the trampoline and hammock, the grass jewel-green and soft, the dock in the distance. The sun is starting to sink to the horizon, so the lake is shimmering with golden light; it’s a beautiful evening, a beautiful place. Surely five children between the ages of eight and eleven can think of something fun to do?

“Are you okay?” Tessa appears at my elbow as I’m dumping pizza crusts into the trash. She touches my arm hesitantly, like the brush of a wing, a look of concern on her face.

“Oh, I’m fine.” I give a rather brittle laugh. “Parents, you know. They can be so exhausting, so full-on. My mother especially.” I don’t know why I feel the need to say that.


“Where are your parents?”

“My dad lives in Pennsylvania, my mom has passed away.” She speaks quietly, with dignity, and I get the sense of an old but deep wound, one that still pulses with pain.

“I’m sorry. When did she die?”

Tessa swallows hard. “Two years ago, but she wasn’t well for a few years before that. She had a stroke six years ago, which left her paralyzed on one side, among other things.”

“I’m sorry.” She nods, looking down; clearly this is still hard for her. “I’m sorry,” I say yet again. “That must have been tough.”

“It was. But…” She draws a quick, raggedy breath. “I do know what you mean. Parents.” She gives a little grimace. “My dad and I don’t really get along.”

“Don’t you?” It’s so much easier to talk about Tessa’s life than think about my own. “Why not?”

“Oh. Well.” She shrugs. “I left home to study art and he didn’t agree with that. Said I was going to end up penniless, living in his basement.”

“Well, you proved him wrong, I suppose?” Park Slope is not Pennsylvania.

“Yes, but not really.” Tessa’s gaze slides away from me. “I mean, I never made it as an artist, you know? Not even close.”

“Not many people do.” I think of the horrendous paintings and abstract sculptures in the gallery where I worked. The stuff was awful, like something a five-year-old would make with playdough, but some of them were worth thousands. “Do you work? Besides kids, I mean?”

“I have my own business, making greeting cards. Which sounds a lot more impressive than it is.”

“Don’t apologize for it. It’s more than I do.” I am reluctantly impressed. “You’ll have to show me one sometime.” I glance at the children, who are milling aimlessly around the yard. Charlotte tugs on Katherine’s hand, whispering to her, and a shy smile blooms across her face. See, maybe it’s not so hard, after all. At least not for kids.

“I’m sure you’re very busy, though,” Tessa says, sounding loyal even though she has no idea about my life.

“Oh, of course I’m busy,” I trill sarcastically, rolling my eyes so she can share in the joke, although maybe she doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. I gesture to my body. “This doesn’t come easy.”

“Oh.” She actually blushes. “Right.”

“And I do the usual charity stuff. Fundraising, galas, that sort of thing.” It all sounds so boring and shallow, even to me. Especially to me. Tessa nods slowly, and I realize, not for the first time, of course, how completely different our lives are.

“So, your parents?” she asks after a moment. “What’s the deal with them?”

“Oh, you know. Just the usual stuff. Bossy mother, distant dad. Well-meaning, but they love me too much.” Tessa doesn’t respond and I’m not willing to say more. The kitchen is clean and I want wine. “What about you, do you see your dad much?”

“Thanksgiving, Christmas.” She shrugs. “The usual.”

“What about your husband’s family?”

“Not much there. Kyle’s parents divorced when he was little. His dad moved to Abu Dhabi for some corporate job and his mom moved out to Arizona. She’s got a new husband and is kind of… I don’t know, wacky.”

“Power crystals and positive energy kind of thing?”

Tessa laughs, a little relieved that I seem to get it. “Yeah.”

“My aunt was into all that for a little while.” I shake my head in memory. “We went to her house for Christmas one year and we all had to sit in a circle, holding hands and feeling the energy.” Although none of that sounds all that bad now. Maybe it would help. Before Helen got into all that New Age stuff, she was a manic-depressive. Now she’s got to be doing better than I am.

“So, will your husband come visit during the summer?” Tessa asks, startling me out of my brief reverie.

“Josh? He’ll come up for part of August.” Although we haven’t talked about it since he paid for this place. “He’s busy, you know, making money.” I laugh, rolling my eyes, inviting her to share the ridiculousness of it all once again, the over-the-topness of my life, but Tessa just smiles faintly.

“Looks like the natives are restless,” I say with a nod outside. Ben is trying to start a game of tag but nobody’s interested, and in a minute I suspect Zoe is going to deck him.

“Yes, I should get back.” Tessa gives me a quick smile before hurrying outside. I feel guilty because I think I made it obvious that I wanted her to go, but I can’t handle any more. I know I can’t. The phone call was the last straw, the damn nail.

We’d love to see the children, Rebecca. And Josh called… we’re worried about you, up there on your own. He is too… what if we came for the weekend?

It doesn’t take long for Tessa to tear Ben and Katherine away, and within a few minutes they are saying their dutiful goodbyes. Some guilty urge makes me reach for Tessa’s hand, surprising her.

“Think about coming to the club with us tomorrow,” I say, squeezing her fingers. “It would be fun.”

Tessa murmurs something noncommittal in reply, and then they are gone, shuffling down the meandering path between our cottages.

“I don’t like them,” Zoe announces before they’ve cleared the trees.

“Zoe!” I usher the children inside, where they can’t be overheard. “Where are your manners?”

“Ben is a bully.”

“So are you,” I return before I can think better of it, and Zoe’s face crumples before her chin lifts a notch. “What happened upstairs, anyway?”

Zoe launches into a diatribe about how Ben forced Max to play air hockey, and then slammed the puck into his hand on purpose, and I glance at Charlotte for confirmation. She shrugs.

“I think it was an accident, but you know Max. He didn’t want to play and Ben said he had to.”

“Couldn’t he just say no?”

Charlotte shrugs, and I sigh. Max is a pushover, the opposite of Zoe, both challenging in their own ways. He probably wanted to please Ben, or maybe just appease him.

I turn to Max, who has just come inside, for a final opinion. “What happened with Ben, Max?”

“I shouldn’t have had my hand there,” he whispers, and my heart contracts with guilt and love. Poor little Max. I pull him into a quick hug, and he burrows his head into my stomach. “Are they going to come again?”

I stroke his silky hair, the same rumpled chestnut brown as Josh’s. “You might all learn to get along, you know. They are our neighbors, we should be friends.”

“Friends?” Zoe sounds utterly disbelieving.

“What about you, Charlotte?” I ask. “You and Katherine are the same age. Did you get along?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Charlotte doesn’t sound convinced.

“Katherine is weird,” Zoe declares. “She kept chewing her hair, and that is just gross. Plus, she bites her nails and it was disgusting. She kept spitting little bits out, and her fingers were all raggedy and bleedy.”

“Really, Zoe, you’re bein