It was a sunless October day and the ride out of the city was depressing. Five years of circling the block for parking spaces and homeless people peeing on their stoop and pigeons mating on their skylight and a growing list of miscellaneous urban annoyances should have made leaving the city a more desirable option. He needs to leave, Claire. It’s not about you any longer, she reminded herself. In deference to him, she kept her protests infrequent and comedic. Still, selfishly – oh so very selfish, Claire! — moving to the exurbs felt like an unbearable indignity and a painful confirmation that they were no longer young and carefree.
“It’s not the house, right? You like the house?” Sam pressed, his knuckles tightly clenching the steering wheel of their Audi, the unbuttoned cuffs of his plaid flannel shirt showing the Rolex she had given him last year for their fifth wedding anniversary. She had inscribed, “…always time for you.” They had both chuckled at how corny that was, but when the fit of laughter had subsided, he leaned in and kissed her gently on her forehead, pushing away her dirty blond bangs with his thumbs. “I love it, babe,” he’d said.
“The house is fine. More than fine. It’s fantastic. And I’ll be fine, I’m just going to miss the city a little. It’s what we’ve been talking about. But I know you need this-”
“We need this.”
“That’s what I meant. You know that. Okay, well, now I feel like a stupid, selfish bitch for even saying this…”
“But since I asked…”
“But since you asked, I guess I just know who I am in D.C. Who am I in – I can’t say it without laughing – Frontier Village?”
“Let me stop you right there and remind you of who you were as an urbanite. You were a woman who was sick of the rats and the trash and the crime – and I’m just talking about the political toilet of a job you loathed. You also hated the actual rats and trash and crime in our neighborhood, which you once described as, and I quote, ‘Brooklyn without the fashion sense.’ Claire, you need to trust me on this. Frontier –”
“Frontier Village is going to be a lovely place to live. And I think working at home is going to be a nice change for you. Starting your own PR agency. That’s exciting! It’s only for a few years, until I –”
She inhaled sharply as if from the prick of a needle. “Sam, don’t. I know, I know. It’s fine. I’m onboard. I am. Can we just drive?”
She wanted to believe the move was a good idea. Financially, it made a lot of sense. They’d bought the house way below market value. A steal, they had both agreed. It’s a fresh start, she told herself. One big reset button. But major change of any kind had always made her uncomfortable to the point of nail-biting. Early on in their relationship, he had tried to change this about her with exotic vacations to Iceland, Japan and Australia. But usually, by about day three, she was anxious and homesick and generally no fun to be around. Maybe if the circumstances were different, she could get more excited about the present move. But she was so damn tired. Tired of worrying about him. Tired of waiting for the other shoe to fall. Tired of being tired.
Self-identity concerns aside, she also had a general distaste for suburban and rural living. To Claire, it all represented a kind of red state conformity, an averageness that left everything feeling bland and mediocre. She always thought people went to the ‘burbs to get pregnant or fat – usually, but not always, in that order. Wives sat near the bar at Chili’s so their husbands could keep one eye on the game and the other on their two fidgety, pre-diabetic kids. Romance was almost always inspired by guilt and solved with cheap, cellophane-wrapped carnations from the grocery store. Birthdays were celebrated with box cakes. Florida was an exotic getaway.
Life beyond the city limits meant jalapeno poppers and trips to Michael’s craft stores and scrapbooking and potpourri and a paralyzing predictability she was terrified might grow on her. She already took too much comfort in routine and the thought of any more of it in her life made her want to grab the wheel from Sam and turn the car around. Of course, these worries were trivial when she considered Sam’s needs. His reasons for wanting to leave the city were real and she would honor them. How could she not?
Sam was still talking. “This isn’t post-war suburbia, babe. It’s entirely different. This is ‘planned rural.’ It’s like ‘soft urban’ with more trees and less retail.”
Sam loved a good plan! “It will be fine, honey. I’m excited. Really I am.”
“You’re a sucky liar for someone who’s in PR,” he said, batting his eyes at her playfully and throwing her a goofy grin.
Through her passenger-side window she could see just a blur of green trees and then cows and then empty fields and then trees again, rusting farm equipment, dirt roads, “No Trespassing” signs, the occasional farm stand. It was dusk when they crossed into West Virginia. After an hour more on the road, they crested the hill leading down into the valley where their new home awaited them. From this distance, the neighborhood looked more like a settlement, surrounded on two sides by rolling foothills and otherwise encircled by cornfields and orchards. A massive house on a sharp rise overlooked maybe 40 or 50 smaller houses. The cluster of homes had an appearance of congregation that felt necessary given the barrenness of the surrounding landscape. When she saw it now, at sunset, she was overcome with a panicked sense that they should hurry up and get there before nightfall. Before the nothingness of the countryside engulfed them in darkness.
When Sam and Claire toured their first apartment, a brownstone in Capitol Hill, she had fallen in love with the exposed brick. It felt sturdy and reliable and somehow a little mysterious. She had come to regard her husband in this way, too.
They had met at an inter-agency holiday party. She had just moved to D.C. for a public relations job at the FDA, and he was an aerospace engineer for NASA. On paper, they had pretty much nothing in common. But there was something about the way he had joked with her that cold December night. Some people called it a “click,” but she would later describe it to friends as more of a “wink.” His pickup line was still a fond memory.
“FDA, huh?” he had said, squinting quickly at the plastic name badge attached awkwardly to her left breast. She turned slightly, startled by his baritone, nearly knocking her gin gimlet over before looking up. She instantly wondered how she hadn’t heard his approach. Her slight yet athletic frame seemed practically wispy when compared with the six-foot two-inch man now towering over her. He wore a perfectly-tailored navy suit and his face was somehow architectural and chaotic at the same time. Its cleft chin, mounted ruggedly to a steely jawline, was dusted by just the hint of a beard. Claire thought he looked like a coal miner who had reluctantly accepted high society’s invitation. What had he asked again?
“You work at the FDA? I noticed your name tag. I’m Sam. Sam Sturgis. My pickup line was going to be something about how I’m a huge fan of food and drugs, but then I lost my nerve.”
She laughed, as if to say “give me a break,” but the blood rushed to her cheeks like floodwaters over a dry plain, and the whole response came off as flattered. Her thick blond hair and fit, toned body, the hard-fought results of 6 AM spin classes and a religious diet of shitty-tasting super foods, attracted comments from men of all types. But this guy was different somehow. Her need to flirt with him was instinctual, sudden and primal. “Hopefully your nerve loss isn’t permanent,” she zinged back. Wink, wink.
It was his turn to laugh sheepishly, his aw-shucks expression a severe contrast to his mischievous eyes, which undressed her without pretense or permission. Sam Sturgis was an endearing blend of shy and straightforward, and she didn’t need a second drink to know they’d be together. If she had made a toast at that very moment it would have been “to the wait being finally over.”
And it had been an agonizing wait. Her early thirties had been an emotional cataclysm for her. “Screw the male midlife crisis,” she had told a friend. “What about the panic I am feeling about starting a family? Yesterday I was pledging my sorority in college. And now I can almost hear time passing. My mother calls me every day to ask me if I’ve met someone and it’s all starting to feel like a bad rom-com.”
During the week of her thirty-first birthday she received two birthday cards and three wedding invitations. Claire would faithfully attend every one, once as a bridesmaid, and twice as the maid of honor, but always as someone with a deep, almost spiritual sense she would never find her true match. And, sure, there were always a few eligible groomsmen at each of these affairs. But they only wanted one thing. She had even let one of them get to third base in a regrettably dingy reception-hall bathroom, partly to avoid the throwing of the bouquet. Once, at another wedding, it had hit her in the head before bouncing into the clamoring hands of another desperate bridesmaid. The girl cheered and held up the crappy bunch of carnations and baby’s breath as if she had caught the last loaf of bread thrown from a U.N. food convoy. The next wedding will be mine, she silently vowed. And I will not throw a damn bouquet.
She only dated Sam for six months before he proposed. But the intimacy and intensity of their relationship, of their friendship, made their brief history seem longer and richer. She said “yes” before he was done asking.
They discovered early on they often knew what the other was thinking, and quickly became that annoying couple who completed each other’s sentences. Sam’s ability to read her never felt like a violation, never felt presumptuous. It was the kind of closeness you experienced when an old friend playfully challenged your embellishments. “I know you and you did not say that!”
Sometimes his insight into her was astounding. It was their first night in the D.C. apartment on 14th Street. The move, which happened days after they returned from their honeymoon, had emotionally and physically exhausted them both. All they owned surrounded them in stacks of U-Haul boxes, the one holding their 20-bottle collection of red wine torn open in an illuminating display of their priorities. The couch was overturned and cushion-less, and the new kitchen table had yet to arrive. So, they sat on the floor finishing room-temperature sushi in square foil take-out containers. They talked for a long time about how the move felt effortless to them, natural, like they were meant to be together. The entire time they dated, they’d never disagreed, let alone fought. And the intensity of their sex was rivaled only by the potency of Sam’s affection and deep understanding of her emotional needs. He suddenly leapt off the floor and went down the hall to the bathroom. “Be right back!”
While he was gone, she thought about this night and what a milestone it was for them and their relationship. And for the first time in a very long time, she couldn’t hear the thunderous ticking of her biological clock. Her mind was filled only with contented thoughts of the here and now. She fantasized about taking a hot bath with Sam, the surface of the water coated in rose petals, as they sipped on glasses of red wine. She was almost exclusively a cabernet gal, but tonight she would decant the bottle of pinot noir. Its sultriness would pair nicely with her mood. Sam’s playful whistle from down the hall put an end to her daydream. She walked toward the bathroom and pushed open the door.
“Let me guess, you need me to unpack the toilet paper…” she said, before stopping to take in what she was seeing.
An eddy of air from the opening door parted the thick wall of steam surrounding the claw foot tub in which Sam sat, naked, his thick hair wet and slicked back. Brawny and bashful, he beckoned her closer, his curling index finger inviting her pulse to quicken as she seductively unbuttoned her blouse. As Claire got closer she noticed the water was covered with…rose petals! He handed her a glass of red wine.
“Mr. Sturgis, you sure know how to woo a girl,” she purred, before taking a sip of her drink.
It was pinot noir.
“There it is,” Sam said. “Home sweet home.”
As much as Claire wanted to hate it, the approach to the front gate of Frontier Village was impressive. To call Frontier a gated community was not at all accurate. It presented itself more like an outpost or a compound, a collection of 50 houses surrounded by an imposing 15-foot high brick wall, adorned with actual turrets every 500 feet, all equipped with security cameras. On a hill overlooking the other homes, but within the wall’s perimeter, was the much larger house she had noticed on their approach. It looked imposing even at this distance. The main gate, which was made of ornate wrought iron, was book-ended by enormous gas-lit lanterns, the flames of which illuminated a small guard house in simmering oranges and reds.
“Total protection,” the real estate broker had offered enthusiastically when they first toured the neighborhood three months earlier.
“Protection from what, a T-Rex?” Claire had retorted.
“Oh, I like you. You’re funny. Is she always this funny, Sam?” the broker had asked in a southern twang.
“No, not always,” Sam offered, with a jaded eye-roll.
The broker had frankly annoyed the hell out of Claire. Beverly Brimble was in her late fifties and leapt from her white Lexus sedan in a streak of teal-blue polyester, her tope leather handbag undoubtedly containing a bottle of the cheap perfume she had clearly showered in before their appointment. Somewhere, years ago, Claire imagined, some real estate mentor of Beverly’s must have advised her to “dress – and smell! — the part,” to be the person you imagine to whom you are selling flimsy, pre-fab houses in the middle of nowhere West Virginia. And here she was, completely unaware that her country-girl frugality revealed itself to more urban creatures like Claire. Like her fragrance, she was a low-rent approximation of the glamor she imagined her potential buyers desired. And so, her exuberance over Frontier, and the new house, Claire dismissed as a matter of questionable taste.
“I have never sold a house in here, so I am very excited to show you this!” Beverly had exclaimed as they stood in front of 124 Settlement Way, a huge, showy neocolonial structure with 15 front windows, including a massive Palladian-style one above the front door. Towering above them was the home’s gabled roof, which rose skyward at what seemed to be an unnecessarily severe pitch.
“Really? I would have assumed these go on and off the market all the time.” Sam said, touching the house’s brick face as if to confirm it was in front of him.
“The builder of the development did their own marketing and sales, and they sold all of them before they even broke ground. Come to think of it, this one isn’t even in the MLS system. The seller said they knew an interested buyer and to hold off. At this price, they could have done it for sale by owner, but who am I to turn down a commission? Anyhoo, here you are. People are always asking about availability in this neighborhood, so I wouldn’t dilly-dally. This is at least $200,000 below market. You must have a guardian angel.”
“One of Sam’s colleagues knows the seller,” Claire explained. “Apparently, he just wants to get rid of it quickly.”
“Well, then, let’s get you quickly inside!” Beverly exclaimed, fumbling with the lockbox attached to the front door’s handle.
Claire wanted to hate it, but it was hard. Walking into the foyer felt akin to getting your first glimpse at the inside of a temple. The grand staircase — a buffed, black walnut creation adorned with dark iron spindles atop smooth, polished handrails — poured into the foyer like warm chocolate, terminating into gleaming white marble floors, as bright as confectionary sugar. The slightly orange bulbs in the gilded iron chandelier over their heads somehow diminished the room’s immensity, making the space seem livable and grand, yet without being ostentatious. Claire gasped despite herself.
“Wow,” was all Sam managed.
“I know!” screamed the realtor, the flabby undersides of her outstretched arms jiggling as she turned and extended them in a helicoptering motion meant to convey, Voila! “Yes, yes, Sam, that is what they call the wow factor, my dear!”
“Holy crap,” Claire said, sliding her hand from her gasping mouth, down her chin, and then her neck, before letting it fall just above her breastbone, where she pressed it as if to check if her lungs were still working. “Beverly, this is gorgeous. I still can’t figure out why they are selling this so cheap.”
“That makes two of us. Oh, and you haven’t seen anything yet, sweetie. Come on, I’ll give you the full tour.”
And she was right. Claire hadn’t seen anything yet. Aside from being utterly cavernous, the house’s craftsmanship was so pristine and perfect, it was hard to even describe. The wainscoting was flawless and complex and covered nearly every wall in the home. The light fixtures were intricate and well-placed. The counters in the chef’s kitchen were extremely modern, lavished in a durable, high-end industrial material the couple both agreed they had never seen before. The bathrooms were so tastefully appointed, with intricate tilework and designer plumbing fixtures, they were only to be outdone by the fully computerized and climate-controlled wine cellar.
“And get this,” said Bev (the name she had insisted they call her). “The wine cellar, if you notice, comes stocked. Isn’t that a hoot?”
“Who stocked it exactly?” said Claire.
“It’s a gift from the neighborhood association. Isn’t that sweet? There must be at least 100 bottles of wine down there. Classy group of people, if you ask me. Talk about a welcome wagon, am I right?”
“We’re on a different wagon,” Sam said firmly enough to cause Bev to nod her head and wince empathetically. “But the gesture is sweet, I agree.”
“You could always turn it into a home gym,” the realtor offered.
“More than likely, a home office,” said Claire. “I’m supposedly starting my own PR firm.”
“She is definitely starting her own PR firm,” Sam interjected.
They saw the garage and the stone patio out back, covered with a whitewashed pergola and encircled by beds of wildflowers exploding in the mid-summer heat, and, a week later, their low-ball offer was immediately accepted.
They approached the guard shack now and two men in crisp security guard attire, complete with badges, caps and walkie-talkies affixed to utility belts, emerged from the booth, their exhalations blooming before them in the bracing chill of the October night. Both were tall, muscular and blond, and looked so much alike Claire thought they could be brothers. One guard crossed in front of their car and positioned himself on the passenger side as the other motioned for them to stop and, bending forward, gave Sam a friendly wink before waving hello to Claire. Sam rolled the window down.
“Mr. Sturgis, sir, welcome home,” said the guard, glancing down at a handheld computer tablet, then at Sam’s face, then back down at the screen again. “And Mrs. Sturgis, welcome. Is this your first night in the Village?”
“Yes, it is,” Sam replied before squinting at the name on the guard’s badge, “Officer Collins.”
The other guard was now bending over to look in Claire’s window and when their eyes met, he gave a friendly wink and a satisfied smile before standing upright again.
“And we have here your movers should be here by 8 AM tomorrow, correct?”
“That is correct, sir.”
“Well, Mr. Sturgis, if there is anything at all you require this evening, our phone number is right there,” he said, handing Sam a business card. “Don’t hesitate to use it if you need us.”
“You both have a pleasant evening and again, welcome home. I and Officer Gaines are both glad you’re here.”
“Thank you. Okay, cheers.” Sam eased the Audi forward before saying to Claire, “Well, that was impressive. Knowing our names like that.”
Creepy if you ask me. She said nothing.
“Claire, this is a good thing. It will be good for us. Good for me. I just can’t manage living in the city anymore.”
“I know, baby.”
“But…you’re holding back. What do you want to say?” he prodded.
“No, nothing, forget it, Sam. Don’t make me feel self-involved again, okay?”
“Babe, you’re still allowed to have feelings, despite everything that’s happening.”
“You said that already.”
“Okay, well. Like I said. I had a sense of community on Capitol Hill. And I know that community would have been there for us when things get worse. That’s all. And, I took comfort from my routines. There is a part of me that is just going to have to acclimate to this. Leaving everything we know behind feels —”
“Demented?” They both laughed at that and, as they drove slowly, taking in their new neighborhood, a procession of gigantic homes encircled by immaculately manicured lawns and paver stone driveways, she thought about the real reason they were moving to Frontier Village.
“Don’t worry, babe, you’ll find community here, too, I promise.”
She desperately hoped so. Now, more than ever, it was about finding “a balance in life,” at least that’s how Sam had described it to her after his last doctor’s appointment. Or, more exactly, the last one to which he’d agreed to go. In that moment, she knew this place wasn’t a cure for their problems, but if it would help Sam, benefit him in yet untold ways, well, then that was enough for now. For him, she would embrace it. No more questions. No more doubts.
Three years into their marriage, life hadn’t been perfect, but it certainly wasn’t bad, either. Sam had just received top secret security clearance at NASA, forever ruling out boring work talk at the dinner table. She didn’t know much about what he did at “the Agency,” as those who worked there called it, so whenever someone asked her what her husband did she just said “space stuff,” and that was usually enough of an explanation for any of the wonks in her social circles. What she did know was he was very good at whatever the hell he did. Not because there were tons of awards on the walls or a steady stream of defense contractors trying to lure him into the private sector, although both were true. For Claire, Sam’s expertise was evident in the intensity he brought to his work, and for the sheer and obvious enjoyment he got from his professional life.
Case in point: they had upgraded from their tiny downtown apartment to a brownstone on Capitol Hill and their basement was festooned with all kinds of computer and electronic gadgetry, and posters of galaxies and satellites and asteroid belts. “I’m pretty sure he could land the space shuttle from his man cave,” she would half-kid with her best friend, Jessica. And their daily routine would always include her standing on the landing of the stairs leading into the basement, bending over slightly to spy on him at his computer, his nose practically touching an indecipherable display of code. “Sam, your dinner is stone cold. Come on, babe!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry!” is all he would ever say as he pushed himself away from his computer, still staring at the screen while rolling backwards in his office chair, swiveling and then zinging right back to it again. “One more minute, just one more minute.”
Cold food aside, it was hard for Claire to get angry. So many people she knew in D.C. despised their jobs. And that always strained relationships. Jessica’s ex-husband, Nick, was a sleazy lobbyist for some industrial chemicals association. He hated his job, but he didn’t hate hanging out at the bar across from his work on K Street, where he met another miserable, boozy lobbyist named Marlene. When she wasn’t screwing around with married men, Marlene represented the portable toilet industry’s interests before Congress. It was a match made in heaven, and Jessica was now single again at 40 after a gut-wrenching divorce that included shared custody of their three-year-old daughter, the issuance of a restraining order; and an inebriated altercation with Nick’s paramour that had ended with Jessica crying all the way back to her Capitol Hill condo in the back of an Uber.
So Claire indulged Sam’s work-related obsessiveness. It wasn’t uncommon for him to spring up out of bed in the middle of the night – scaring her half to death – because he had solved some line of code in his head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry!” he’d say, his whispered pleas fading down the staircase to the first floor, followed by more hurried footfalls down to the basement. She’d stare for a minute at the depression in his pillow and never hear him come back to bed, if he even did. Sometimes she would find him asleep in his computer chair before gliding a cup of steaming hot coffee below his nose, like caffeinated smelling salts.
Yet Sam could hardly be described as a geek. His height, which had so captivated her when they met, was paired with jet black hair, so thick his fingers sufficed as a comb. He belonged to a hockey team with some of the guys from work, wasn’t into Star Wars or Star Trek and was an incredibly good cook. But most importantly, except for the details of his work, she knew everything about him. Her husband was a tremendous and caring human being who loved her unconditionally. She had never found that before him. Other men had always tried to change her. Maybe not right away, but in time, as familiarity threatened to turn to boredom — always, it seemed, around a relationship’s third year. Inevitably they would make a subtle, or not-so-subtle, plea for some sort of change. Not Sam. Sure, he insisted she not turn into a homebody and that they take a few overseas vacations. But, above all, they were best friends and, in that beautiful agreement, forever forgiving of the other’s faults and limitations.
In fact, most of Sam’s faults were virtues. He hated argumentation of any sort and preferred to instead “sit down and talk it out.” This was a welcomed change to the house Claire had grown up in, one in which her older, rebellious sister often plunged the family into weeks of angry and argumentative conflict. In contrast, his aversion to disagreement was paired with an impressive inability to become overly emotional. His passivity and collectedness were starkly contrasted by Claire’s sweeping range of emotions, a character trait she struggled to control. The first time she drove her mother-in-law to the airport for a flight it seemed she would miss due to the unbearably heavy traffic, Claire ground her teeth during their banal small talk, focusing instead on the endless cavalcade of idiots cutting her off or not letting her in.
“And, I just think if you and Sam want to come to our place for Christmas this year that would be —”
“You asshole! Get out of the way, you fucking idiot!”
“Claire, I’d rather miss my flight than listen to that. Honestly,” her mother-in-law had said. “It’s not helping anyone.”
Three years ago, she thought about all this as she sat across from her husband at their favorite restaurant in D.C., Grist, a votive candle burning in a purple glass holder between them, their third anniversary dinners ordered. She thought about this man she knew so well, who accepted and respected her decision to not have kids right away, who had endured one Capitol Hill mixer or fundraiser too many, who had supported her through half-hearted attempts to learn Spanish, and piano, and how to cook, and smiled cheerily through every incorrect pronunciation, note and flavor profile. He loved her. And she him.
“To us,” she toasted, lifting her glass of ginger ale to his.
“To us,” he clinked back, spilling a bit of his soda on the red tablecloth the restaurant had obviously broken out for the Christmas season.
“Three years. Isn’t it crazy? It seems like just yesterday we were at that awful office party. You remember, the one where you couldn’t take your eyes off my intense beauty.”
“As I recall I made you blush,” he flirted. “Or maybe it was the wine. You drank a lot of wine. Back then.”
“Guilty as charged. With the scars to prove it. Oh, here is the waiter. I’m starving,” she said, moving aside her utensils to make way for her mushroom gnocchi and broccoli rabe.
The server, a lanky millennial whose manufactured snobbery came across as cute to Claire and Sam, placed her plate before her and then circled the table to deliver Sam’s entree. But as he moved toward Sam with the bowl, a greasy thumb undid his hold and the short rib ragú went flipping like a Tiddlywink right into Sam’s lap. The young man was so shocked at himself, he cupped his mouth in horror. Sam stood up and let the steaming meat fall to the floor with an unfortunate sounding squish.
“I am so terribly sorry sir. Oh my God, let me get some water and napkins and —”
Sam exploded, his face as red as a candied apple. With a closed fist, he pounded on their table, causing their settings to jump and their glasses to fall over into each other, smashing upon contact. “You dumb fuck! Piece of shit! You stupid fucking asshole!” he bellowed like a madman.
The rant might as well have been a discharged machine gun in the demure dining room, which fell utterly silent after a collective gasp that felt to Claire like it had stripped the room of every molecule of oxygen.
“Sam! What are you doing! Sit down!” she implored. “You are way overreacting! Sam, for Christ sakes, sit down!”
“No, no, no, I will not sit down,” he screamed at Claire, a petulant child refusing to end his tantrum. “I am mad! Very mad! Very, very angry! And he did it! He did it! To me! Whose side are you on?” He punched the table again, causing a glass water decanter to roll off and smash to the floor.
The tide of shock had rolled out, and with its retreat rushed in a blur of restaurant employees and a few good Samaritans from nearby tables coming to the defense of the waiter and, Claire realized in horror, her. Sam sat back down in his chair, looking dazed and dumbstruck.
“Jesus, dude, it was a mistake,” the server was imploring, as his coworkers patted his back and shot Claire looks of questioning disgust or pity.
Claire saw her husband’s rage flee his face, like sunlight chasing shadows into the corner of a room. The fury was replaced by an innocent, dumbfounded look, as if he had been genuinely surprised to find himself responsible for such a mess. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” was all Sam kept saying, as Claire gathered their things. She tried to pay the manager, who waved her away. “We don’t want your money. Just go.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him. I’m so sorry. This, this isn’t him.”
“Whatever,” she heard the manager say. And, then, just before the door clicked shut behind them, “Lunatic.”
The days and weeks that followed were a blur. Sam said he had been overcome with rage, something he described as a nearly involuntary response to the food hitting his lap. The almost primal loss of control had shaken him to his core. It was, he told Claire — and eventually the psychiatrist, and then neurologist — as if something in his brain just snapped, like a dried-out rubber band. The rage at the restaurant was apparently not an isolated incident. Although he hadn’t told anyone, not even Claire, he was having difficulty paying attention at work, too. Rather than intensely focusing on a project with a looming deadline, he had become inexplicably sidetracked by less important tasks. And, two weeks before their anniversary, on his drive to work, he drove 30 miles past the exit for his office. “I was in a daze. I pulled off the highway and sat at a McDonald’s and had no idea where I was or where I was going.”
Claire had also witnessed his strange behavior. A couple of times, as they were eating dinner at home, he had begun shoveling food into his mouth as if it was his last meal on Earth. This level of heartiness was out of character for Sam, normally a very picky, light eater. At the time, she laughed it off, saying, “I guess my cooking classes weren’t entirely a waste of money!” Loss of appetite, okay, maybe he was ill. But increased appetite? It was weird, but at the time, seemed harmless.
After a series of tests and scans and sessions, the now team of physicians came to their conclusion: Sam had a form of early onset dementia.
“Sam, the frontal and temporal lobes of your brain are shrinking,” said one of the doctors before Claire began sobbing uncontrollably. “You’re going to experience changes in your personality, like you did at the restaurant, and in your cognitive function, like some of the issues you’re experiencing with work. And it’s progressing.”
That night, as Sam slept, Claire walked down the street and bought a bottle of wine. She told herself she would hide it somewhere in the house and open it only in times of extreme stress. She hadn’t had a drink in over a year and she wasn’t about to start now, she assured herself. It was just in case. Just in case, Claire.
Before she went to bed the next night, she crept on unsteady feet through their small backyard to the alleyway out back. She carefully lifted the cover of their neighbor’s recycling bin and placed the now empty wine bottle quietly on top.