A time comes when every woman must learn what
to do with life’s lemons. Some make lemonade. Some
clean their garbage disposals. And some make a proper
cup of tea.
Sarah Flynn always chose tea.
She dumped the water from her Keep Calm and
Carry On mug into the electric kettle on her desk. The
mug, the kettle, and the Vermeer print pinned to the
privacy panel behind her dual monitors were the only
personal effects that distinguished her gray cubicle
from all the others in the D.C. federal office building.
As the water heated, she reached into her lunchbox for
the quartered lemon she’d packed that morning. She
held a wedge in her fingers, preparing to squeeze it into
An obnoxious ding interrupted her classical music,
and an instant message popped up on her screen.
—Did you clock out for your break?—
She jerked and squirted the lemon into her face.
“Damn it,” she muttered as she blinked the sting from
her eyes. She typed a return message to her supervisor.
She imagined her boss, Mr. Rosen, punching at his
keyboard with two index fingers in his managerial
office—a work area about four times the size of her
box, with glass walls and a window. The glass walls were a luxury, except when someone caught him with
his finger shoved up his nose—as Sarah had often done.
She squeezed the rest of the juice from the wedge
into her mug. As the scent of citrus permeated her
cubicle, she scrunched her nose. Why had life delivered
her such a strong lemon as Mr. Rosen? Leaving her job
at Central Elementary was bad enough—a job she’d
loved, with children so charming she almost didn’t
mind their hovering parents. The job at Central had
been with colleagues who’d supported her efforts to
bring the arts into her third-grade classroom.
The kettle whistled, and Sarah blinked away tears.
So much for that dream.
Mr. Rosen’s voice jostled her from her thoughts.
She jumped, her left knee banging against the desk.
“Yes, Mr. Rosen?” She rubbed her knee. Why didn’t
companies make furniture to accommodate tall people?
He plopped down a stack of papers. “Here’s
another listing. I need it ASAP.”
The stack looked thicker than a Tolstoy novel. He
enunciated each letter as if he were delivering orders to
an international organization designed to combat
terror—though he was more than likely only delivering
misclassified purchases for ballpoint pens and toilet
paper. She checked the clock on her monitor: threethirty.
Even with the caffeine of three pots of tea, she
couldn’t get the listing done by five. “Sir, remember I
told you I’m not working overtime anymore.”
“You are today.” He walked away.
The stench of his Chinese takeout breath lingered
in the air, and Sarah scrunched her nose, but she
couldn’t summon the energy to protest. Her legs were too heavy to chase him through the maze-like
arrangement of fifth-floor cubicles to remind him she
didn’t need the extra money. Hell, the way things had
turned out, she hadn’t needed to leave her beloved
teaching job at Central to become a peon in the federal
bureaucracy of government spending. The pay increase
meant nothing now.
She poured water over a bag of English Breakfast
tea, and the steam burned her cheeks. Without waiting
for it to steep, she lifted the mug to her lips, but the
aroma did nothing for her mood. If she had to spend
one extra second in the office today, she might start
pelting Mr. Rosen with the rest of her lemons.
This day couldn’t get any worse. My life couldn’t
The phone rang, and Sarah spilled hot tea down the
front of her shirt. “Ow!” She pulled the blouse from her
skin, slammed the mug on her desk, and picked up the
receiver. “Mr. Rosen,” she began, in as firm a voice as
she could muster, “I can’t possibly get this listing done
today.” A few beats of silence ensued.
“I’m sorry, I was trying to reach Mrs. Flynn.” A
woman’s voice came through.
“Oh.” Sarah tucked her long bangs, in need of trim,
behind her ears. She softened her voice. “This is Mrs.
“Very good. I’m calling from the Georgetown
Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. The
Georgetown Fertility Clinic. She’d been on the waiting
list so long she thought she’d be in menopause before
they called. What woman struggling to conceive could
pass up their guarantee? Pregnancy in six months or your money back, their brochure read.
“We’ve had a cancellation tomorrow, and you’re
next on the waiting list. Could you by chance make a
“Of course.” The words came out of her mouth
faster than Mr. Rosen could shout directives.
“Wonderful. We’ll discuss payment options with
With a quivering hand, Sarah replaced the receiver.
Suddenly, the stack of papers on her desk held renewed
purpose. Perhaps Mr. Rosen’s offer of overtime wasn’t
untimely after all.
She pulled her jar of sugar cubes from her bottom
desk drawer and dropped three cubes into her cup. So
what if she splurged? She was sure to gain a pound just
by looking at the jar, anyway. With a smile, she brought
the mug to her lips and took a large gulp instead of her
usual dainty sips. The sweet, warm liquid washed over
her like a bright afternoon sun, soothing the bitterness
she’d built up over two fruitless years of pregnancy
attempts, of hypodermic needles filled with hormones,
and of the uncomfortable prodding of obstetricians with
metal instruments and ultrasound wands.
The office bustle faded into a fog. Sarah lowered
her cup and stood. In a daze, she floated through the
office until she found herself in Mr. Rosen’s office. The
room was empty. She went to the window, overlooking
the blossoming spring of downtown D.C. The white and
pink buds of the cherry blossoms lined the street like
giant, hovering snowflakes. Inhaling deeply, Sarah
imagined the faint, sweet aroma of the ornamental trees
instead of the stale odor of Mr. Rosen’s sesame
chicken. Had winter come and gone so soon? Had three months of Philip’s mandated break from fertility
treatments been long enough?
Three months would have to be long enough. This
time would be different.
Sarah spun. Mr. Rosen had half a donut in one
hand and a disposable cup in the other. She leaned
back, the coolness of the glass pressing through her
“Is everything all right?”
He nodded. “Donuts in the break room.” He
shoved the piece in his mouth.
Mr. Rosen was taking her office intrusion quite
well. Philip was always more agreeable after eating.
Sarah took a step forward. “I can’t stay late tonight.
I’ve got to get home to my husband.”
He licked his fingers. His brows met.
“But I promise I’ll work overtime for the next
two—no, nine—months. Promise.” She started for the
door. If she hurried, she’d have just enough time to hit
Philip’s favorite take-out restaurant.
Tonight will be perfect. It has to be.
When Sarah arrived home, the evening chill rushed
into the entry. Philip wouldn’t be home for another
hour, which gave her plenty of time to dress the table
with their finest china and put a bottle of wine on ice.
She transferred the lobster mac and cheese to her
ceramic bakeware and threw the Key lime cheesecake
into the fridge.
As she folded her best linen napkins, she heard a
loose floorboard from above squeak. Was Philip home before her? Maybe he had an event tonight and came
home to change? She checked the calendar hanging by
the back door, but April twelfth was blank. Her
stomach dropped. If he had some swanky dinner with a
senator whose vote he needed, why hadn’t he penciled
in the event?
The thud of a dresser drawer echoed down the
stairs, and she rounded her shoulders. She threw the
napkins over the back of a chair and marched to the
staircase. “Phil?” She climbed the stairs to the master
bedroom and found her lanky, blond husband bent over
the bed. “Phil?”
He jumped and turned to face her. “Jesus Christ,
Sarah. You scared the crap out of me.” A suitcase lay
open on the bed behind him, and he held a pile of
clothes in his arms. “I didn’t expect you home so soon.”
Packing? How had he not written a trip on the
calendar? She frowned. “I stopped working overtime
two months ago.” He wore his work clothes—a pair of
khaki pants with a light blue, button-up shirt and a tie
loosened at the neck. Business trip, for sure. Would
they still have time for dinner? “I didn’t realize you
were traveling this week. You didn’t write it on the
“Sarah,” he started then stopped and took a deep
“When’s your flight?”
“Flight?” He exhaled then shook his head. “Sarah,
I’m not traveling. I’m…”
His voice trailed off, and for a split second a hint of
sorrow grazed his eyes. Then he replaced it with the
calm gaze he used whenever he wanted something.
Sarah straightened her spine. What did he want now? Couldn’t they have a quiet evening at home together for
“I’m leaving, Sarah. I’m leaving you.”
His words tumbled off her. She must have
“I said I’m moving out.” He resumed shoving
things into his bag.
Sarah shook her head, and her hands trembled.
“But…” The words died in her parched mouth. The
room swayed left and right, left and right. She reached
for the arm of the chair. Dropping into the seat, she
buried her head between her knees.
The geometric pattern on the carpet swirled. The
air around her thickened, and the rip of zippers, rustle
of clothes, and shuffle of Philip’s shoes echoed around
her. He was really leaving…but why? Sarah raised her
Philip added more items to the bag.
His favorite ball cap. A bottle of cologne. The
black silk boxers she’d given him for Valentine’s Day.
Wait—the ones she’d bought didn’t have little white
hearts. An iron vise wrapped around her chest,
squeezing the air from her lungs. “Is there someone
else?” Sarah could barely force out the words with the
burning sensation in her throat.
Nodding, he zipped the suitcase and put it on the
His affirmation hit her like a slap on the cheek. She
searched her mind for an expletive, but her lips refused
to move. They were numb, just like her hands and feet.
Philip exhaled. “I’m sorry, Sarah, but we both
know this relationship isn’t working anymore.”
He spoke in a singsong voice that was sure to win him an election one day. Tears burned her eyes as she
translated that vague statement in her mind. She wasn’t
working anymore. She wasn’t on his arm at political
functions, looking graceful hanging on his every word.
She wasn’t preparing gourmet appetizers to entertain
the conservative Midwest senator whose name she
couldn’t recall. And above all, she wasn’t giving him
Casting her glance upward, she watched him
through the distorted view of tear-sodden eyes.
He pulled up the retractable handle on his suitcase
and stepped toward the door. He stopped in front of her
and patted her cheek with his hand. “I knew you’d
He spoke to her as if she were a child. Then he was
gone. Sarah listened to the tread of his feet on the stairs
and the front door opening and closing. Her head still
spinning, she rushed to the window overlooking the
front door and yanked it open. “Jerk!” The word,
almost unrecognizable, tore from her throat.
Philip jumped and turned back.
With his head cocked to the side, and fern-green
eyes flickering, Sarah wasn’t sure if he was surprised or
amused. Either way, neither response was an apology.
She narrowed her eyes and reached for something—
anything—breakable atop the dresser. She grasped a
cool, hard object and hurled it out the window. The
glass box, a trinket Philip had given her when they were
dating, shattered at his feet.
Philip looked from the shards to her. His lips
formed a hard, straight line, and he shook his head.
Sarah slammed the window so hard the remaining
objects on the dresser rattled. A floor lamp teetered and fell to the side. She tightened her grip on the window
frame, partly to release the tension that had built in her
arms, and partly to keep herself from collapsing.
Philip tossed the suitcase into the backseat. Two
boxes sat beside it, and a pile of clothes rested in the
A knot formed in her stomach. Sarah released her
hold on the window frame and stumbled back. This
ordeal can’t be happening.
The car engine growled. Tires squealed.
Tears streamed down Sarah’s cheeks as she
staggered out of the bedroom and climbed the stairs to
the third floor. By the time she reached the olive-green
nursery, she could barely breathe with the heaving in
her chest and the uncontrolled sobs. This nightmare
She scanned the nursery. Outlines of animals were
sketched on the walls. An old desk sat where the crib
would have gone. All were reminders that she was
losing more than a husband. She was being stripped of
a chance at a family. Dropping to her knees, she buried
her face in her hands and rocked back and forth.
Rocking, like the child she was meant to rock.
A soft hum interrupted her grieving, and she jerked
her phone from her pocket, not bothering to check the
caller ID. Maybe Philip leaving was a mistake? Maybe
he had changed his mind? “Hello.” Her voice gargled
“Sarah Miller,” a digitalized voice replied. “I’m
calling to confirm your appointment with Dr. Willis.”
Sarah swallowed, her pulse reverberating in her
“Please press one to confirm or two to cancel.” Sarah held out the phone, her fingers floundering
on the touch screen as she pressed the number two. She
didn’t need the appointment now; she probably never