by Jennifer Weiner
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Her brother Jason and his bride-to-be were registered on WeddingWishes.com. Marlie, housebound with a six-month-old, did all her shopping online, sitting on the beige slipcovered couch where she spent most of her time nursing her baby, or rocking her baby, or trying to get her baby to stop crying. So, on that fateful Friday night after Zeke had finally succumbed to sleep, she wiped the fermented pureed pears off her shirt, set her laptop on the sofa's arm, and pointed and clicked her way through the purchase of a two-hundred-dollar knife set. As she hit "complete order," she wondered about the propriety and potential bad mojo of sending the happy couple knives for their wedding. Too late, she thought, and rubbed her eyes. It was nine o'clock -- a time, prebaby, when a night might just be getting started -- but Drew was still at work, and she was as whipped as if she'd run a marathon.
Just for the hell of it, Marlie typed in her name and reviewed her own choices, feeling wistful as she remembered compiling her wedding registry. She and Drew had made outings of it, having leisurely brunches before driving out to the Macy's in the Paramus Mall to spend hours looking at china and crystal, silver martini shakers and hand-blown margarita glasses from Mexico.
Two years and three months after their wedding, the crystal and the silverware were still in their original boxes in her mother's basement, awaiting the day when she and Drew would move out of their one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side and into a place with a dining room, or at least a little more storage space. The fancy china had been pulled out twice, which corresponded to the number of home-cooked meals Marlie had made since she'd left her job as publicity director for a small theater company in Chelsea to stay home after Zeke was born.
The telephone rang. Marlie picked it up and looked at the caller ID. WebWorx. Which meant Drew. Who was probably calling to say he'd be even later than usual. She nudged the phone under a couch cushion and then, prodded by an impulse she didn't pause to analyze, turned back to her laptop, typed the words Bob Morrison into the "bride/groom" blank, and hit Enter before she could lose her nerve.
Nothing, she thought, as a little hourglass popped up on the screen. Over the last four years, on and off, she'd looked for Bob online, idly typing his name into one search engine or another during down times at work. She never found anything except the same stale handful of links: Bob's name listed as among the finishers in a 5K race he'd run in college; Bob mentioned as one of the survivors in his grandfather's obituary; Bob and a bunch of other graduates of a summer art institute in Long Island. Besides, if Bob ever got married, Marlie figured she'd feel it at some kind of organic, cellular level. After all the time they'd lived together, not to mention all the times they'd slept together, she'd just know.
ONE COUPLE MATCHES YOUR RESULTS, popped onto the screen. BOB MORRISON and KAREN KRAVITZ. MANHASSET, NEW YORK.
Marlie jerked her head back from the computer as if a hand had reached out and slapped her. Bob Morrison. Manhasset. That's my Bob, she thought, and then she shook her head sharply, because Bob wasn't hers anymore. They'd broken up four years ago. Then she'd met Drew, and now she was married; she was Mrs. Drew Davidow, mother of one, and Bob wasn't hers anymore.
CLICK TO VIEW REGISTRY, invited the text at the top of the page. Marlie clicked, and scrolled through the registry, her slack jaw and wide eyes bathed in the blue glow of the screen until her husband came home, looking wan and weary, and set his briefcase down next to the diaper bag. "Are you okay?" he asked. She'd blinked at him groggily and started to climb off the couch. The baby was crying again.
"No, don't worry, I got it." He managed a smile and headed toward the portioned-off part of their bedroom where Zeke slept. "Hey, little man," she heard him say. She managed to get herself off the couch and staggered toward the bedroom. I'll just rest for a minute, she thought as her head hit the pillow. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them again it was three in the morning. Drew was on the couch, with Zeke resting on his chest, just starting to open his eyes. Marlie unfastened her nursing bra, adjusted Zeke's weight in her arms, and eventually, the three of them fell asleep on the sofa, together.
"He's marrying a woman who registered for a Health-O-Meter food scale," Marlie reported to her best friend Gwen on Monday, over an early lunch at their favorite Midtown sushi place. Gwen, who'd been Marlie's friend in college and first roommate in New York, had gotten married at twenty-five and pregnant at twenty-seven, and had gone back to work in advertising when her daughter started nursery school. That day she wore high-heeled boots, fitted jeans, and a smart tweed jacket with ruffled cuffs, complemented by a gorgeous red patent-leather bag. Marlie carried a nylon diaper bag and wore maternity jeans. She'd never been a skinny girl to start with, and she was having trouble shedding the last fifteen (eighteen, actually) pounds of baby weight, which seemed to have settled themselves quite happily on her hips.
Gwen raised her eyebrows. "And we know this because..."
Marlie gave her the condensed version of the story while pushing Zeke's stroller back and forth with her sneakered foot: she'd been buying her brother a present, just decided to plug in Bob's name...
Gwen's saucer-shaped hazel eyes widened, but her voice was calm as she said, "Just decided to?"
Marlie's cheeks flushed. "Well, I was curious, I guess. And that's not the point. The point is that he's marrying the un-me! The anti-me!" She pushed the stroller so hard that it bumped into the table, spilling green tea onto Gwen's plate and into her lap. "Oh, God. I'm sorry!"
"No worries," Gwen said too quickly, as she tried to mop up the mess while keeping her cuffs dry. "It's just tea. So the un-me thing. You're basing it just on the food scale?"
"What kind of woman registers for a food scale?" Marlie asked.
"A woman who's concerned about portion size, I guess."
"A skinny bitch," Marlie muttered, handing her friend her napkin. "And if you're the person who gives them the food scale, what do you say on the card? 'Best wishes for a happy life together, PS, don't get fat?' "
"You could just go with 'congratulations,' " Gwen said.
"It wasn't just the food scale," said Marlie. "There was a plastic chip-and-dip set. Tack-ay. And beige china. Beige!" She shook her head, feeling her heart pounding, realizing she was angrier about this than she'd previously suspected. "Beige. Bor-ing." Yeah, she thought bitterly. Like she was leading such an exciting life. Her idea of culture these days was watching more than twenty minutes of uninterrupted Oprah.
Gwen set her chopsticks down. "Okay. Listen to me. We are not going down the Bob Morrison road again."
"What are you talking about?"
"The obsession. The agonizing. The dialing while drunk."
"I only did that once," Marlie protested. Gwen's cuffs were dripping. Marlie pulled a Pamper out of her diaper bag and handed it to her friend.
"The drive-bys," Gwen continued relentlessly, pointing a chopstick for emphasis.
"It can't technically be a drive-by if you walk," Marlie said. "And, listen, Gwen, what if he was the one I was supposed to be with? What if..." She took a bite of dynamite roll, poured more tea, and popped a few edamame our of their shells. When she looked up, Gwen was still waiting, head tilted, eyes wide. She sighed, and said, reluctantly, "What if he was the one?"
Gwen looked taken aback, as if she'd never questioned her commitment to her own husband. She probably hadn't, Marlie thought. It was probably easy not to when your husband was tall, handsome, completely agreeable, besotted with you, and looked like a taller, not-crazy Tom Cruise. "Well, for starters, you married someone else and had a baby with him," Gwen said.
Marlie sighed. There was that. Gwen set her chopsticks down on her plate and looked at her friend intently. "Marlie," she said. "This is what you wanted. You wanted Drew, you wanted a baby, you wanted to stop working. Remember?"
Marlie nodded. She could remember, all too vividly, sitting across from her friend in this very restaurant, bouncing Gwen's daughter Ginger on her knee and avowing her desire for those very things. But Ginger had been an adorably pudgy baby who'd grown into an adorable little girl, with a collection of Little Mermaid purses and after-school ballet lessons, and Gwen, with her clean house and her nanny and her happy, accommodating husband, made it all look easy. Had Gwen's first six months of motherhood been this awful? If they were, Marlie wondered, would her friend have told her?
"I know things aren't great right now," Gwen said. "Marriages go through rough times."
"Did yours?" she asked.
Gwen shrugged. "Well, sure. Remember that fight we had about whether to take his mom on vacation with us?"
Marlie nodded, even though, as best as she could remember, that fight had ended after a day, when Paul had simply agreed to tack on the cost of another casita to their stay in Scottsdale. As for Marlie, she had thought, once or twice, late at night when she was so tired it was a struggle to get her limbs to obey her, that recent events in her marriage had transcended the boundaries of "rough time" and were edging toward "the whole thing was a mistake." Drew and his partners were in the process of launching WebWorx. Her husband left their apartment before eight in the morning and rarely got home before nine o'clock at night, and she couldn't fairly complain about it, because he was the only one bringing home a paycheck. She'd just never expected that caring for a newborn would leave her feeling so exhausted, so edgy and desperate for adult human contact beyond the ten minutes of conversation Drew could muster before falling asleep when he finally came home.
"It's going to get better," Gwen said. She glanced at her slim gold watch, smoothed her straightened hair, and got to her feet. "I know this part's hard, but trust me. You just have to live through it. Zeke's going to start walking and talking, and sleeping, and you'll be fine." She looked down fondly at Zeke, and bent to kiss his cheek. "And believe me, you wouldn't have wanted to miss this. It goes so fast."
Marlie nodded, feeling a jealousy toward her friend that was so strong and sudden that it was like being punched. She'd have given anything to be Gwen, with ruffled cuffs and beautiful boots, on her way off to an afternoon that would not include endless renditions of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" and three baskets of spit-up stiffened laundry; an evening that would not involve a baby who screamed and screamed, no matter how she tried to soothe him.
She meant to walk home, but Zeke was still sleeping peacefully in his stroller, and somehow she found herself walking downtown, past the bus stop and the trash cans, the grocery store and the fancy boutiques, toward the neighborhood where she and Bob had once lived together.
"Hey, Bob, meet Marlie!"
"Hah hah hah," Marlie said, holding her plastic cup of beer and looking up at the man who'd just occasioned a joke she'd heard approximately a thousand times in her life -- once for every Bob she'd ever met. But this Bob didn't seem so bad. He was broad-shouldered, maybe an inch or two taller than she was, with curling brown hair and gold-rimmed glasses, a soft belly pushing against the buttons of his blue-and-green-plaid shirt, and a friendly, slanting smile. He looked like an illustration of a friendly bear cub from one of the books she'd loved as a little girl.
"Is it Marley like the singer, or..."
"No, it's Marlie with an i and an e."
"Oh." Bob nodded, leaning close so she could hear him over the sound of R.E.M. informing the assembled guests in the crowded off-campus apartment that it was the end of the world as they knew it. "Wanna dance?"
She shook her head. She didn't dance. Girls like Gwen -- cute girls, graceful girls -- they danced. Girls like Marlie stood in the corner, making caustic comments and guarding her friends' purses.
"No thank you," she said, but Bob either didn't hear or didn't care because he plucked her cup of beer out of her hand and pulled her toward the center of the room.
"No, really," she tried again, but Bob wasn't listening. He smiled and reached for her, putting one hand on the small of her back, tucking her neatly against him.
"Come on," he said. His skin was pleasantly warm, and he smelled of soap and beer and something sweet, like hay or fresh-cut grass. Even through the bass line, she imagined she could hear the beating of his heart.
Bob and Marlie stayed together until they graduated from NYU, and then they moved into a place that Marlie had found in Murray Hill. Marlie, who'd starred in every campus theater group production from Medea to Hair, did temp work in law offices and went on auditions and go-sees, trying out for everything from soap operas to experimental off-Broadway productions to made-for-cable shoot-'em-ups. Bob talked about graduate school and painted his big, colorful abstract canvases a few hours a day, a few days a week. Bob had a trust fund, thanks to a father who'd done quite well as a personal injury attorney (one big case involving a guy who'd lost both legs in a freak subway mishap, and he'd been set for life), so it didn't really matter if Bob never got a gallery to represent him, or a day job, or if he never finished the paintings he started, or if he spent most of his time making mix tapes and meeting his similarly semi-employed friends for lunches that turned into marathon Frisbee games in Union Square Park.
Marlie watched and waited, and went everywhere her agent sent her. It took her a few years to figure out, gradually and painfully, that she was a good actress, and New York City only had room for the great ones -- and sometimes, not even them. She'd get the occasional callback for TV shows that filmed in New York, the every-so-often bit part, and once, a commercial for an antacid in which she portrayed Bloating Sufferer Number Three, and clutched at her belly convincingly for fourteen hours.
She and Bob turned twenty-three, then twenty-four, still in their little apartment with the kitchen full of newspapers and pizza boxes Bob could never remember to recycle, and the bed -- well, futon, really -- that never got made, where everything they owned had been scavenged from a street corner or donated by Bob's parents. Two weeks after Bob's twenty-fifth birthday, they had a talk that boiled down to Marlie asking, "Is this all you want from your life?" and Bob responding, "Yeah, and I don't see what's wrong with it." He'd sulked. She'd fumed, and gone to sleep on the couch. Two weeks later, she told her agent not to bother submitting her head shot anymore, took the full-time publicity job at New Directions Theater at 8th Avenue and 18th Street, and moved out. I have put away childish things, she thought, as Bob leaned against the doorway, giving her the boxes she'd packed and wiping at his eyes. "Be good," he'd said, handing her a nine-by-nine square wrapped in plain brown paper, a portrait he'd painted of her, back when they were still in college. Grow up, she thought, kissing his stubbly, salty cheek and then walking down the rickety stairs with the scuffed rubber treads, past the hole that some new tenant's king-size bed had gouged out of the plaster wall. And, except for one rum-soaked weekend involving a few late-night phone calls and three trips past their old apartment, that had been that.
She'd met Drew the following summer, on a vacation Gwen had talked her into, a long weekend white-water rafting in West Virginia. In the gear shop, being fitted for her wetsuit and paddle, she'd mistaken her future husband for one of the guides. She'd peppered him with half a dozen questions about the equipment and whether anyone ever got hurt on these trips before he confessed that he was actually a Web designer from Manhattan, who'd been born and bred in the city and didn't know any more about rafting than she did. When it turned out they both worked in Chelsea, they'd exchanged business cards, and when they got home, they'd traded e-mails, then they'd met for drinks, then they'd started going out. She'd married Drew, and Bob, she knew, from a postcard he'd sent a year and a half ago, had found a gallery in the Village to represent him. "Bob Morrison, Unfinished," his show was called. She'd wondered if it was meant to be a joke. Then she'd wondered if he actually wanted her to come to the opening, or if he'd sent the card as a kind of screw-you, a way of thumbing his nose at her and showing her he'd made it as an artist after all.
Eventually she'd stopped wondering and tossed the card, thinking that things had worked out the way they were supposed to. Happy endings all around; everyone where, and with whom, they were supposed to be. So why now, all these years later, with a husband and a baby, couldn't she quit thinking about Bob Morrison? Why couldn't she stop remembering the night they'd met, how cool the spring air had been on her face when she'd left the party, how the night had smelled of lilacs, how Bob had eased her against the stairwell of that long-ago apartment, raining kisses down on her face as his hand had slid up her cheap cotton skirt...
You have to stop this, she told herself, pushing the stroller back toward Carl Schurz Park. She'd made her choice. She'd picked what was behind Door Number Two, and it wouldn't do her any good to think about what might have been behind Door Number One. At the park, she fed Zeke, then smeared sunblock on his plump white arms and cheeks. An hour passed with excruciating slowness while she pushed her baby in a swing and listened to the other mommies, trying to nod in the right places, trying to impersonate a happily married young mother who'd made the right decisions and was reasonably content with her life.
But that night, Drew was working late again, and, after she'd wiped down the countertops and sponged dried oatmeal from Zeke's breakfast off the floor, Marlie found herself back on WeddingWishes.com, rolling her eyes over Bob and Karen's towels and polyester-blend tablecloths. Before long, not even that was enough, and some dark impulse led her to stick one of Bob's old mix tapes into the stereo and click back to the log-in page. If you are the bride or groom, click here, she read, as the Cure's "Why Can't I Be You?" jangled in the background. She clicked on GROOM. PLEASE ENTER YOUR PASSWORD. She held her breath and typed. The whole time she'd known him, Bob's password had always been Felicity, which was the name of his cat. VERIFYING. Then, WELCOME, BOB. CLICK HERE TO UPDATE REGISTRY, read the screen. Her heart was pounding as she scrolled through Household Items to find just the thing she wanted, adding it to the list, hitting Update. One Hitachi Magic Wand, with its wonderfully suggestive shape, added to the Morrison/Kravitz wish-list. Heh. But why stop with sex toys?
UPDATE BRIDE'S CONTACT INFORMATION, invited a link. Marlie clicked, and there were the address and phone number for Karen Kravitz. Little Miss Help Me Celebrate My New Life with a Food Scale. Marlie cut and pasted Karen's information into a new window for future research purposes. Maybe she'd forward it to Gwen, who was a whiz on the Internet. Maybe Gwen would get lucky and find a picture...
Her fingers froze above the keyboard as another idea occurred to her. Quickly, before she could lose her nerve, she erased Karen Kravitz's name and typed in her own. UPDATE? the screen asked. This is crazy, Marlie thought. But the knowledge of her own insanity didn't stop her. Maybe once she saw her name and Bob's together at the top of a wedding registry that now included a food scale, beige china, and a vibrator, the obsession that had taken hold of her since she'd learned that Bob was getting married would loosen its grip, and she'd be herself again, and happy.
She hit Enter. There was a popping noise, as small and unimportant as a soap bubble bursting...and her screen went black.
"Oh, no," she murmured, giving the laptop a little shake. She hit Control-Alt-Delete. Nothing happened. She hit Restart. Still nothing. "No, no, no," she groaned, yanking out the power cord and plugging it in again. What if she'd broken the computer? And what was going to happen when Bob saw what she'd done to his registry?
She heard Zeke make his little crowing eh eh eh noise in the bedroom. She ran into the bedroom, pulled him out of his crib with shaking hands, changed his diaper, nursed him on the couch next to the black-screened laptop, while frantically trying to restart the computer with her free hand and figure out how to tell Drew what had happened. She'd gotten as far as "Honey, I'm really sorry" when she fell asleep.
The instant she opened her eyes, she knew something was wrong. The light. The light was wrong. There was too much of it. In his entire life, Zeke had never slept past six in the morning, and the room was too full of light for it to be that early. The light was wrong, the bed felt wrong, and that voice...
Marlie rolled over and felt her whole body break out in goose bumps when she saw who was lying next to her. Bob. Bob Morrison, with new wrinkles at the corners of his brown eyes, looking at her with his familiar slanting smile. She sat straight up in the bed -- the futon -- barely managing to bite back a scream.
"You okay, babe?" The sunlight glinted off the silver threads in his hair, and his hand was warm on her bare shoulder. "You're not getting cold feet or anything, right?"
"Right," she managed. Her heart was in her throat, and she could feel her pulse booming in her ears as she slipped one hand underneath her pajama bottoms, feeling for the line of raised flesh. No scar. Hence, no C-section. Ditto, no eighteen pounds of baby weight. And, presumably, no baby. This is a dream, she thought, running her hands over her hips and wondering why she had ever thought she was fat before she'd had the baby, or if she'd ever had a dream that felt this real. Everything was so vivid -- the feel of the sheets on her bare skin, the faint smell of beeswax candles, the sound of traffic through the windows, even the sour just-woke-up taste in her mouth.
Bob's hand followed Marlie's under her waistband. He leaned close and kissed her cheek, then her ear. Marlie shuddered as his beard scraped the tender skin of her neck, feeling a flush of pleasure, which was quickly followed by a full-on wave of guilt. "Bathroom," she gasped. She tossed back the covers and hopped out of bed, skidding through a patch of sunlight, and stopped to twirl in front of the bathroom mirror, checking out her prebaby physique from all possible angles.
"Okay," she whispered in the mirror. "Focus." It was a dream, brought on by the mishap with the registry and possibly bad sushi. (Hadn't she thought the toro had tasted iffy?) And even though she could smell the toothpaste and the soap, could feel the slightly damp bath mat under her feet, could hear Bob padding across the floor to come find her, maybe hoping for a quickie in the shower before she headed off to work and he headed off to wherever, it wasn't real. So it wasn't cheating.
He eased the door open and looked at her with a familiar gleam in his eyes. "Good morning, sunshine."
She grinned at him. When she was pregnant, she'd had the most outrageous X-rated dreams, and one of them had started off sort of like this, and had eventually wound up including every guy on Laguna Beach.
He backed her up against the vanity and kissed her, once, and not for long. Then he reached for his toothbrush. "I need to get out of here."
"Oh?" This was a dream, she reminded herself. He probably just had to go downstairs, where Stephen, Talen, and Jason were waiting, wearing nothing more than their swimsuits and their smiles. "Where?"
Bob stared at her. "To work," he said, speaking slowly, as if Marlie had become deaf overnight. "Are you sure you're okay?"
Marlie nodded, looking at her hands. The left one sported an engagement ring. It was a perfectly nice diamond ring. Just not hers.
Bob leaned close and kissed her again. "Tonight," he said, his voice low and husky. "I'll make it up to you. Have a good day." He smiled and went to the closet, where he started getting dressed. "Have a good massage."
"What?" asked Marlie. Then: "Don't I need to go to work?"
He was looking at her strangely again. "You took the day off. My mother got you that gift certificate at Bliss. Remember?"
"Oh, right," she said. She nodded. He nodded, reassured, picked up his coat, and walked out the door. Marlie hugged herself and grinned, skipped back to the bedroom, and flopped onto the down comforter that was still warm from Bob's body, feeling joy flood through her. Freedom, she thought, in the manner of Mel Gibson rallying the Scots in Braveheart. Freeeeeedom! And a massage, too. What an excellent dream this was turning out to be.
Marlie spent the afternoon in baby-free bliss: skipping down to the newsstand at the corner, where the guy behind the counter remembered her name and handed her Us, Star, and People in a big, slippery stack; having a grilled three-cheese sandwich for lunch in the window of her favorite coffee shop; savoring every exquisite, silent moment of her massage. Afterwards Marlie took a taxi back to their old apartment, where she wandered barefoot through the small rooms, admiring her ruby-red toenails and noticing that the dream-Bob -- Bob 2.0? -- was still in the habit of leaving half-finished cups of coffee on the radiator. But there weren't any canvases, unfinished or not, propped against the walls. No paintbrushes or paint anywhere, either, no smell of linseed oil or turpentine. Weird, Marlie thought as she opened the closet, trying to see if there were any unstretched canvases in there. No luck...but when she slipped her fingers into the pockets of Bob's winter coat, she found a business card. Robert Morrison, it read. Director of Innovation and New Technology, Morrison Law, LLP. So Bob had broken down and gone to work for his father, as director of innovation and new technology, whatever that was. It gave her a strange, sad pang. Just for the heck of it, she dialed her own number at New Directions. Instead of her own voice, cheerful and confident, saying This is Marlie Davidow at New Directions Theater, there was three-toned chime, then a mechanical voice. You have reached a nonworking number. If you feel you have reached this recording in error...
Now she felt even sadder, and stranger. Was New Directions still mounting Uncommon Women and Others? Who was making follow-up calls to the city's jaded, cynical theater critics, convincing them that the play wasn't just a throwback gloss on Sex and the City because it involved more than one woman? And how long had she been asleep, anyhow?
She wondered whether Zeke was sleeping, too, or whether he'd woken up and Drew was with him. She tentatively pinched her right arm...then, wincing, pinched it harder. Nothing happened.
The logical thing to do would be to fall asleep again and hope that she'd wake up in the right bed (or at least on the couch in the right apartment). But after the first good night's sleep she'd had in months, dozing off seemed unlikely.
Marlie forced herself to think calmly. If this was a dream, she could wake up. If it was some kind of alternate reality, a glitch in the time-space continuum that had nothing to do with bad sushi and was possibly related to actual magic, she could figure that out, too.
She stood in the center of the room, closed her eyes, and clicked her freshly pumiced heels together. "There's no place like home," she said. She opened her eyes. Nope, still Bob's apartment. She shut her eyes again. "It's a wonderful life?" She opened her eyes. No dice.
Heart racing, mouth dry, Marlie scanned the room, looking for clues. Bob's dirty clothes on the floor...last Sunday's newspaper, ditto...
Her hands clenched into fists as she stared at the artwork-free wall. Taking a deep breath, she started walking toward it...then trotting. She'd worked herself up to a half-decent jog when her forehead made contact.
Marlie reeled back, blinking. Her eyes were watering and she saw stars, but beyond the stars she could see that she was still, emphatically, not back home again. Then it hit her. She wiped her eyes and ran to Bob's laptop, drumming her fingers on the desk and muttering "Come on, come on," as the cranky dial-up connection stuttered its way online.
HELLO BOB AND MARLIE! read the log-in screen at Wedding Wishes.com.
She clicked on the BRIDE'S INFORMATION tab. The screen froze. SYSTEM ERROR, it read. WINDOWS WILL SHUT DOWN.
"No, no, no!" she hissed. But the connection was broken, and she heard Bob's feet making their way up the scarred staircase, and his key in the lock.
"Hey!" Bob called, said, coming through the door with a garment bag in one hand and a shoe box in the other. He frowned when he saw that she was barefoot, in her jeans. "We'd better get going. Can't be late to our own party, right?"
"Here comes the bride!" Bob's brother Randall called from the doorway of the bar two blocks from their apartment, where Bob and Marlie were regulars. Not because they'd ever liked the place -- the bartender was surly, and the jukebox ate their change -- but because it had two-dollar pitchers on Monday nights, which made it an affordable option for Bob's slacker friends.
Marlie winced as Randall enfolded her in a rough hug. Randall had grabbed her boob in the Morrison family dining room after Thanksgiving dinner one year, and then tried to explain away the gesture as the consequence of overwork and the tryptophan in the turkey, while Marlie had stood there, face flaming, afraid to move lest she bump into one of the many Morrison antiques. She looked over her shoulder for her putative husband-to-be, but Bob had vanished. He always does this, she remembered, feeling the old frustration wash over her. Classic Bob. He'd take her to a family function, promise to stay by her side because he knew that she was shy and that his brother was a boob-grabber, and when she'd turn around he'd be two rooms away watching the football game.
Drew would never, she thought. Drew could be loud, he was frequently late, he was deeply opinionated, and he was not shy about sharing his beliefs with friends, and even less so with strangers. But at parties, he would take her coat and hold her hand. He'd stick to her side, making sure that her glass was full and that she was part of a conversation. Marlie shook her head, feeling the afternoon's unease ramping up toward panic. What if she was really still asleep, on the couch, and the baby was awake and she didn't hear him? Not likely, she knew, but every once in a while Zeke woke up and didn't cry. She'd walk into the bedroom and find him lying in his crib, staring up at her calmly with his blue-gray eyes like he was waiting for her to tell him a story.
The crowd swept her toward the buffet set up on tables along the back wall. Per usual at Morrison family affairs, there was a surplus of booze and very little food. Bob's parents were standing by the bar, looking prim and out of place, Mr. Morrison in a sports jacket and Mrs. Morrison in two-hundred-dollar yoga pants and a beaded peasant blouse the likes of which no real peasant could hope to afford. Bob brushed past her, deep in conversation with someone Marlie didn't recognize. Marlie grabbed his sleeve and he gave her a nonchalant smile.
"Come meet my friends," he said. He steered her toward the jukebox, where she was introduced to Barb and Barry, from Ultimate Frisbee, and Karen from Morrison Law.
The woman looked startled. "That's right." She was of medium height and medium build, in a pale-blue jacket and a pair of unfortunate high-waisted blue jeans. Her hair was light brown, but her eyebrows and eyelashes were so pale and wispy they were practically invisible. "Have we met?"
So this is who Bob marries in real life, Marlie thought. Just an ordinary person, with a taste for beige china and a skewer of what appeared to be chicken satay in one hand. "Hey," Marlie said, unable to help herself, "would you say you've got about four ounces there?"
Karen Kravitz blinked her see-through lashes. "Excuse me?"
"Nothing," Marlie said...and then, thank God, she spotted someone she knew. "Gwen!" She shimmied and twisted through the crowd and flung her arms around her friend's neck. When she let go, Gwen was looking at her quizzically.
"Jeez, Marlie, I just saw you last night!"
"For sushi?" Marlie asked.
"For your fitting," Gwen said, looking at her strangely.
"Come with me." Marlie dragged her friend to the bathroom, which was small and dirty, with green-painted walls and the aggressive reek of ammonia. "I need to tell you something." She ran her hands through her hair, the glossy, good-smelling hairdo of a woman with time on her hands and no baby in her life. "I know it's going to sound crazy, but I'm not supposed to be here!"
"Are you having second thoughts?" Gwen asked, with an eagerness that would have been insulting under other circumstances. Her eyes sparkled as she reached into her purse -- in this life, a luscious black crocodile hobo bag -- for her keys. "My car's right outside. I can have you out of here in five minutes flat."
"I don't need a car, I need a computer. I have to change my wedding registry."
Gwen stared at her, eyes wide, mouth open. "You're having second thoughts about your china? Haven't you already gotten four place settings already?"
"It's not the china! My life! I'm having second thoughts about my life!"
Gwen stared at her, mouth open, eyes wide.
"Drew," Marlie continued frantically. "Drew Davidow. That's my husband. That's who I'm supposed to marry. We met him on that rafting trip, remember?"
Now Gwen looked troubled. "Marlie, we've never been on a rafting trip."
There was a knock on the door. "Ladies?" Bob called.
Marlie tried one last time. "I have a baby. A little baby boy. Ezekiel. Zeke. We named him after my grandfather." She reached into her own purse, fumbling for the wallet, and the picture she kept there, of Zeke when he was one day old, swaddled in the pink-and-blue-striped hospital blanket with a little knitted cap on his head. But the wallet she found wasn't the wallet she remembered, and when she flipped it open the only picture she found was one of her and Bob from a photo booth at Dave & Buster's, sticking their tongues out at the camera.
"Is this some kind of joke?" Gwen asked.
Marlie dropped the wallet and grabbed her friend's hands. "Help me. Help me, please," she said, her voice beseeching. "I'm not supposed to be here."
Bob stepped through the door, looking impatient. "There you are," he said, edging past Gwen. He took Marlie by the hand and led her past the dripping sink and the broken paper towel dispenser, back out into the party, as Gwen shot one last troubled look over her shoulder and left, Marlie hoped, to get the laptop that would be her salvation and send her home.
This is a mistake, Marlie thought, smiling mechanically as she hugged Bob's aunt Phyllis, who smelled of the Altoids she chewed compulsively to mask the scent of the cigarettes she thought nobody knew she smoked.
I've got to get out of here, she thought as Randall congratulated her again, allowing his hands to drift from her waist to the curve of her ass. Here own mother kissed her cheek and whispered, "Good luck." Marlie swallowed hard, almost crying, remembering how her mother had said, "I'm so happy for you" the night before she'd married Drew. The night unfolded in a parade of ribald toasts and congratulations, and finally Marlie decided that if she couldn't wake up and she couldn't get home, she could at least enjoy one pleasure denied to breast-feeding mothers and get really, really drunk.
She started with a beer, then moved to her old single-girl standard, rum and Diet Coke. The jukebox blared "Mustang Sally," and Bob's Frisbee friends clustered around a television set at one end of the bar. Marlie set down her third sweating glass on a tray full of empty plates and dirty napkins and made her way to the bar for a refill. While she waited, another way to fix things surfaced, slowly, in her rum-sodden brain. Sleeping Beauty, she thought. Heel-clicking and head-bashing hadn't worked. Maybe all she really needed to do was get Karen to give Bob a kiss.
It was, she decided, worth a try. She collected her drink, smoothed her hair, and sidled over to Karen Kravitz, who was standing in a corner with a wistful look on her face.
"Hey," Marlie said, and burped.
The other woman gave her a weak smile.
"So listen," Marlie said. "Do you, um, like Bob?"
"Sure," Karen said. Her tone was neutral. "He's very nice. You're very lucky."
"I mean, do you like him," Marlie said, and gave Karen's forearm an encouraging little squeeze. The other woman's eyes widened.
"What are you saying?" she stammered.
Marlie hiccupped, and silently cursed her decision to go with a carbonated alcohol delivery device. "Nothing. Never mind. Do you like art?" she asked. "Y'know, Bob's quite the artist."
"I know," Karen said warily. "He does a comic strip about the office."
"Does he?" Okay, this was good. This was something. "Are you in it?"
The other woman smiled. "Sometimes. It's more about Bob and his father." Her smile widened. "In the comic strip, Bob gets superpowers after a freak accident where lightning hits one of the vending machines in the snack room."
"Lightning," Marlie marveled. "Snack room. Wow. I'll bet the drawings are really good."
Karen's eyes narrowed. "He's never shown it to you?"
Marlie ignored the question. "He used to be a painter. In college, and after. That was what he really wanted, but it's hard, you know." Okay, she thought. Bring it on home. "I think," she blared. Oops. Too loud. She lowered her voice. "I think it's so important for women to be nurturing and encouraging. To be, you know, the power behind the throne. Or the easel."
Karen gave her a strange look. "Excuse me," she said, and disappeared into the crowd. Marlie sighed and slumped down at a table for two. When she looked up, the other woman was standing there with a steaming mug of coffee in her hands. "Here you go," she said, not unkindly. "It was nice to meet you. See you Sunday."
"Bob's a really good kisser!" Marlie called helplessly toward Karen's departing back. No answer. No surprise. Marlie hiccupped again, realizing miserably that her theoretical husband's actual fiancée might very well have thought she was proposing a prenuptial threesome.
She sighed, catching sight of Bob's familiar figure, the line of his shoulders and his worn plaid shirt, as he stood shoulder to shoulder with three of his cousins at the bar. She remembered something she'd forgotten in the excitement -- the obsession, really -- of stumbling across the news of Bob's nuptials. Four months before they'd broken up, she and Bob had a fight at her grandmother's eightieth birthday party. Marlie's grandmother always had something to say about Marlie's job prospects, or her appearance, and Marlie was delighted that for once she'd have a supportive boyfriend by her side.
Bob, however, had other ideas, and Jets tickets. He finally agreed to skip the game and go to the party, but he'd sulked for the entire ride up to Rhinebeck, and he'd ducked out of the living room after two beers and twenty minutes, leaving Marlie to parry her grandmother's increasingly pointed questions about whether she and her young man had made any plans.
She found Bob in his car, slouched behind the wheel with the radio tuned to the game, a third and fourth beer in the cupholders and a truculent look on his face.
"Hey. Little help in there," she said.
Bob reached down and turned up the volume without looking at her.
"When did you decide to hate me so much?" she asked him. She'd started the question lightly, as if she were teasing, but by the end of it she wasn't kidding at all. Bob gave her a hostile shrug. Marlie was pierced with the knowledge of how far apart they'd drifted. He didn't want to be in her grandmother's house with her, and she didn't want to be in the stadium with him. He might have cared for her, might have even loved her, but he didn't -- or couldn't -- take care of her. And she, fed up with the joblessness and the aimlessness, the Frisbee games and the parental handouts and the half-finished paintings, was increasingly disinclined to take care of him.
The relationship didn't officially end for months, but she knew that that was the real moment when it had died.
She and Bob walked home from the bar in silence. "Are you okay?" he asked, tossing his keys onto the rickety table by the door, seeming not to notice as they bounced off the surface and slid to the floor. She nodded woodenly. When the nurse had handed Zeke to her for the first time in the hospital, she'd said, "Here you go, Mom," and Marlie had actually turned to look over her shoulder to see if her own mother was there. "I'm not sure I can do this," she'd told Drew, and he'd leaned down, eyes tender, and kissed her forehead, and said, "I know you can." She remembered the three of them in the taxi home, the brand-new car seat painstakingly strapped between them and one of Zeke's hands gripping her index finger. And she thought of Drew in the equipment shop as he'd zipped up her wetsuit and adjusted her grip on the paddle, telling her not to worry, because he was pretty sure the rapids looked worse than they were.
Late into that sleepless night, in the white cotton nightgown she'd lost in the move out of their old apartment and thought she'd never see again, she lay beside a man who wasn't her husband -- at least not yet and, with any luck, not ever -- and thought about Drew and her baby. She conjured their faces until she could practically touch them, could practically reach out and kiss them. She could see Zeke's fingers fanning open and shut as he nursed, the way Drew's hair curled over his collar when he went too long between haircuts.
This is what you wanted, Gwen had said. Marlie opened her eyes and looked down into Bob Morrison's slack, sleeping face. Then she touched his arm. Bob woke up with a start, eyes wide, face flushed.
She propped herself up on her elbow and looked down at him. "I'm sorry," she said.
He squinted at her in the darkness. "Why, what'd you do?"
"It doesn't matter. You just have to forgive me." Because you work for your father instead of painting, she thought. Because you're supposed to be Karen's husband, not mine.
"Fine. I forgive you. Can I go back to sleep?"
She nodded, and she kissed his cheek. He ruffled her hair and rolled over. A minute later he was snoring again.
She counted to a hundred once, then again. And when the world was dark and still outside and the city streets were quiet, she tiptoed back to Bob's computer and logged on to WeddingWishes.com.
Her hands trembled as she clicked over to CHANGE GROOM'S INFORMATION, erased Bob and typed in Drew. UPDATE? the screen inquired.
Her fingers paused, curled over the keys. Now, she thought. Now I'm going to type ZEKE IS THE HAPPIEST BABY EVER BORN AND HE SLEEPS FOURTEEN HOURS EVERY NIGHT AND NEVER CRIES. Or DREW DAVIDOW IS HOME FROM WORK BY SIX O'CLOCK.
But she didn't type anything else. She hit Enter and closed her eyes and crossed her fingers. Nothing happened for a minute. Then the words Thank you, Marlie floated onto the screen.
She went back to bed and lay down next to Bob, with his easy smile and warm hands and his smell of fresh-cut grass, for the last time, knowing in her heart that she'd wake up where she was supposed to be, curled on the couch with her son safe in his crib and her C-section scar and eighteen extra pounds back where they were supposed to be, and her husband would be coming through the door smiling his tired smile, lifting her to her feet and leading her back toward the bed they shared, telling her, "Go to sleep. I've got this."