Marriage: A Duet
By Anne Taylor Fleming
Published by Hyperion 
January 2003; 0-805-06648-9; 176 pages

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Marriage: A Duet by Anne Taylor FlemingA MARRIED WOMAN

"Is it dad?" Kate said.

"No," her brother said.

"Can it wait then? I've got to get to a press conference in three."

He wanted to say, "Three what?" She'd taken to abbreviating things this way, dropping off the last word. See you in two. Call you in five. Sometimes she meant minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days. It drove him crazy. As if she didn't have the time to finish the sentence. As if she was in too big a hurry. As if she was too important, too hip. But he needed her. She was the only one who'd understand, the only one in the whole wide world.

"It's Mom."

"What do you mean?"

"She's acting weird."

"Of course she's acting weird. Her husband's lying there in a coma and she's sitting there in that hospital room day after day watching him do nothing."

 

"It's not that."

"It is that."

"No, she's acting weird in a different way."

"What - like crying, breaking down, getting angry - all that stages-of-grief stuff? You read that book I sent you, didn't you?"

"Yes. No. But that's not it. She's acting weird in a different way."

"Stevie, come on. Cut to the chase. I told you, I've got to be there in…"

"Yeah, in three. No, make that two now…right?"

"OK, all right." She took a breath.

He heard her through the phone, could see her with that teeny little flat thing - the latest of the latest of the latest technology for her - pressed to her ear, tucked under her sleek chin-length bob. That's what their mom called it, but he figured Kate would snort at the term.

"Sweetheart," she said in a new tone, "can we cut the ADD shit? What's up with Mom?"

"She looks great."

"She what?"

"She looks great all of a sudden. She isn't crying or getting angry. She's sitting there calmly day after day, almost happy. But it's more than that. She looks really, I don't know, pretty."

"So. She's always been pretty."

"No, she's making herself pretty."

"What do you mean?"

"She's actually wearing some eye makeup, I think. It looks like it."

"That's overdue. That's no biggie."

"Maybe not, but she's also dyeing her hair."

"She's what? Now? God, that is weird. I was always after her to do it. I used to kid her that she and Dad looked like the Centrum twins - with their matching silver hair."

"It gets even weirder."

"How?"

"She's doing it right there at the hospital."

"What do you mean she's doing it there?"

"She's dyeing it right there in his bathroom, with him lying there all comatose. I caught her at it, you know, all that brown goop around the hairline. And that awful smell. That's why I peeked in. I got there yesterday and she wasn't there and then I smelled that weird chemical smell so I peeked into the bathroom and there she was with a towel around her shoulders and all that brown crap on her head. She didn't see me. At least I don't think so."

"Jesus. I didn't read about this in the grief book, did you?"

They laughed together.

"Maybe she's fucking the doctor. He is sort of cute."

"For God's sakes, Kate."

"Sorry. I was just kidding."

"Yeah, well it's easy for you. You're not here to see this."

"OK, I hear you. You're holding the high cards. Want me to come down?"

"If you can."

"Let me see if I can hand some stuff off. I'll try to get down this weekend, at least for a day. Shit. I've got so much work. But I'll push it around."

"Let me know your flight and I'll come get you. Burbank might be easier. LAX is out of control. 'Course it's easier to get back to UCLA from there."

"I hear you. I'll call you later. Give Mom a kiss for me. Dad, too." There was a pause. She waited for her brother. "I'm sorry, Stevie. I know it's hard. I'll get there.

Caroline Betts did see her son peek in the door but didn't let on. As he slid backward, she permitted herself a small smile. She knew exactly what his reaction would be and what he would do next. He certainly wouldn't ask her flat out what she'd been doing in there. He might drop a, "Your hair looks good," but he would never let on that he saw her doing it in the bathroom. He would figure it would make her nervous and making her nervous would certainly make him nervous. He didn't like edging into those places. He was like his mother that way. No, what he would do is call Kate, summon her if he could. Caroline could imagine their conversation. He would say something about their mother acting weird. Kate would bluster, try not to get involved, but ultimately yield. She would come, acting hurried and burdened, but her sheer presence would calm her baby brother. She's whirl around the bed, badgering the doctors in her lawyerly fashion: Are you sure? What about this? Shouldn't he be back in ICU? Can't we try that? Steven would say, "Jesus, Kate," a lot - more under his breath than not - but her assertive hectoring would pacify him. She would be doing again what she did when they were little: running interference between him and the world so that he could let down his guard. He would resent her with complete gratitude.

And after she was done with the doctors - she'd have them all in there, every specialist whose name she'd heard; she'd page them as she would one of her aides, standing beside her father's bed working her cell phone with frantic exactitude demanding they come soon because she was only there for a couple of hours - she would beam her aggressive and loving concern on her mother. Are you OK? Are you eating? Hey, you look awful good. Am I missing something here? What's up with the hair? But even she wouldn't bring up the fact that her mother had dyed her hair in the hospital bathroom because that would rat out her brother. That she would never do. She was stymied there. She'd have to try to trick it out of her mother some other way. But Caroline was up to it. She had withstood her daughter's forceful solicitude before. Long before Kate had become a lawyer, her mother had learned to act the part of the evasive witness in a way so deft her daughter hardly noticed - or if she noticed, couldn't effectively break down. It was their dance and, in truth, Caroline took some pleasure in it the way the not naturally articulate take pleasure in bringing to heel the verbally dexterous - with feints, shadows, silence. It was a gift all its own. You couldn't seem obvious or recalcitrant. That just elicited irritation or more dazzling verbiage raining down on your head like a ton of bricks. No, it was a skill, one Caroline Betts had practiced all her adult life, not just with her preternaturally verbal daughter - who talked before she walked, looking up one day at her parents from all fours, at something like eight months, and saying, "bottle," not "Baba" or anything like that, but a clearly recognizable "bottle," causing genetic thrills to run up and down her father's spine because he recognized her, in that moment, as his true offspring, part of his Tribe of the Hyper Articulate (so did Caroline, ceding her right then; it was not lost on her that her daughter's first word was bottle, a declaration of independence from her mother's breast) - but, earlier, with the father himself, her husband, her noisy, opinionated garrulous husband, who now lay inert and presumably silent for the duration. Looking down at him, the huge ventilator tube taped in his mouth, Caroline felt a loneliness so complete it was as if she'd been socked in the stomach. She doubled up, trying to breathe through the tummy clutch of bereavement.

Copyright 2003 Anne Taylor Fleming
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

These deeply moving novellas offer a unique perspective on infidelity, bringing into sharp focus the complications and consequences created by spouses who -- despite their genuine bond of love -- are unfaithful to one another.

In the first novella, A Married Woman, Caroline, a middle-aged woman, keeps a careful vigil over her husband William's death bed. While frightened by the idea of losing her soulmate and lifelong companion, Caroline confronts another startling reality: she feels a kind of rebirth through his passing. The later years of her marriage were tainted -- he had fallen in love with a younger woman but renounced his passions for the sake of the family.

In the second novella, A Married Man, David -- husband, father, and businessman -- finds his sense of well-being and achievement damaged by his wife Marcia's betrayal: a one-night affair, which she regrets but does not conceal from him. When Marcia and David cannot reclaim the daily routine of a happy marriage, they seek help together from a popular television therapist.

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Author

Anne Taylor FlemingAnne Taylor Fleming is a nationally recognized journalist and CNN NewsNight contributor. She is a regular on-camera essayist for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the author of Motherhood Deferred: A Woman's Journey. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, the New Yorker, Vogue, and Redbook. She has been a radio commentator for CBS and a TV commentator for NBC. This is her first work of fiction. Fleming lives in Los Angeles with her husband, journalist Karl Fleming.

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