Seven years was a long time to be in a wrecked marriage. Maya likened her existence these days to a kind of permanent post-trauma, where she was consigned to forever tip-toe around in her own personal life, picking through her relationship with her husband for signs of compassion like she might search the debris of a catastrophe for something – anything at all – salvageable.
When she thought about their digression from where she was now, she determined her last and perhaps only feelings of optimism had occurred at the altar, when she’d believed fervently in their ceremony and all it represented. How she’d cried during their promises to cherish and protect, and how brightly her conviction in their future had burned. When Stu delivered his vows, he’d stood so tall and strong… she would never have believed such sincerity could fade. However, she fast learned it would last only as long as it took them to walk out the cathedral doors after the reverend pronounced them mister and missus.
“The guys are going to steal me for a quick pub tour before the reception, okay?”
Stu whispered in her ear. “Mother!” he called over his shoulder. “Take Maya home to rest before dinner, all right?” He placed a swift kiss on Maya’s temple and was gone, leaving her struggling to cover her anger with an over-bright smile.
Really? He was so hard up for a scotch he would abandon her on the church steps to toss one back with his buddies? She turned to her new mother-in-law to decline her offer of company and avoid the very real possibility of a bridal tantrum in front of her. Maya’s best friend, Kate Blake – along with Maya’s sisters, bless them – intervened.
“We’ve got you,” Kate murmured so only Maya could hear, and then more loudly, “We’ll see everyone at the dance!” She flashed the milling guests a grin, and along with the other bridesmaids, pulled Maya toward the church parking lot and into one of the cars.
Her girls had taken good care of her, too, plying her with humor and champagne until she set aside the bitter resentment that had her fuming and willing to skip the reception altogether. She even believed Stuart’s disregard for her at the church was an aberration, although truthfully, she knew better. No one else was surprised either, Maya noted. Which depressed her.
But she’d pretended everything was fine, both at her wedding reception and all the public gatherings thereafter through the years. Stuart’s willingness to leave her side for any and all excuses continued to embarrass her, even if she could plausibly attribute his departures to their busy schedules and need to stay in touch with a large circle of friends and associates. And she was determined to prove everyone wrong, to earn through forbearance if she must the casual, bedrock-like intimacy that drew her to the idea of marriage in the first place and convinced her she needed to keep trying.
She was thankful the palpable doubt she’d felt from her friends and family – and if she was being honest, herself – no longer distressed her to the extent it had in the beginning, when she was forever steeling herself against anger and tears; when she felt destroyed for days after one of Stuart’s blithe escapes. His constancy in this area had inured her, eventually blunting the sharp stab she used to feel when faced with his lack of devotion.
Her medical training helped in a morbid kind of way, too, partly because medical school and residency took everything she had to give. She didn’t have the intellectual or emotional resources to brood when she faced, every day, twenty hours of class and studying; or when she worked back-to-back twelve-hour shifts on rotation for her residency. In light of these demands on her time, she’d come to view her relationship with Stuart like she would a patient who came into her emergency room: it was anemic and listless but alive, while others were rushing through the doors with fragile aortas and potentially fatal knife wounds. She focused on the truly dying, telling herself she’d get to that other guy as soon as she could.
Still, over the years, she’d come to suspect there was nothing more she could do, that she would either have to leave – an unthinkable prospect – or accept her marriage as it was, which was barely a friendship. She never believed she would be the kind of woman to settle for an apathetic husband, partly because she’d assumed at first Stuart’s love for her would draw them closer once they’d married. It hadn’t. And that he didn’t love her – at least not in the idealized way she thought he should – revealed more of her own ugliness than Stuart’s. She knew her pride hurt more than her heart; and she understood her determination to stick it out was a testament to her desire not to fail, not because she loved Stuart as she should.
Early on, their home life had provided a sufficiently fascinating diversion from her dissatisfaction, enough for Maya to wonder later how big a factor public pressure had been on their efforts to carry on. Maya’s in-laws were members of an elite social milieu in New York she knew nothing about growing up, aside from what most people knew of old families with big money. To Maya, the Evans patriarchs, like the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts, occupied the same place in American lore as other historical detritus she’d been forced to consider in grade school, like the rise and fall of riverboat commerce, or the washed-out and distant images of dead presidents on daguerreotypes. But the effect of the Evans wealth on her day-to-day life now was significant, and not something she could have understood until she was part of it, when their extravagances separated her from what she’d always assumed was reality. She and Stu had a housekeeper for crying out loud, a fact she vowed never to reveal to her parents. They wouldn’t understand, and she could well predict their disapproval should they find out. If she was being honest, she shared it.
Maya had adjusted to a more intrusive public life, too, most of which revolved around her father-in-law, Thad. He was frequently pictured in the society pages, of course, but he was also chief executive for the country’s largest insurance company; was in fact responsible for catapulting his organization into its premier market position via a massive public-private deal he was credited with creating. Stu had told her about it when they were engaged, reporting with pride on the intricacy of his father’s campaign and how the effort had required more than a decade of legislative lobbying and aggressive political contributions. It brought billions to the company’s bottom line and solidified Thad’s candidacy for top dog.
Unfortunately, this meant Thad became the face of an unpopular kind of corporate policy, and subsequently a lighting rod for protesters and similar unpleasantness. Maya and Stuart weren’t directly targeted, but close enough in Maya’s experience. This meant they all had drivers and a security contingent whenever they went out.
Maya had stayed out of the limelight to sidestep the more disturbing attention Thad and those closest to him suffered, but she’d still had to change her habits out of caution. She never, for instance, took a spontaneous walk in the park or made an unaccompanied trip to the grocery store, not that she shopped for groceries any longer. For the first time in her life, she was fluent in the strange privacy characterizing interactions between the wealthy and their attendants, people who witnessed the personal lives of those they served without being included in them. She’d been so uncomfortable with these relationships in the beginning, was still plagued with guilt over the underlying premise: how another human being was hired to make her bed, fold her clothes, or put his or her life on the line for a job. She minimized interactions with these people as much as she could, sneaking her own laundry to the drycleaners to be washed or ironed, and keeping her personal clutter to a minimum so no one had to pick up after her.
She no longer fought the need for a security escort, however. On more than one occasion, Maya had witnessed thwarted physical attacks on Thad by crazed strangers, the kind who often appeared at public events Thad attended. Usually the attacks were verbal, comprised of a few protesters carrying signs in the hopes of capitalizing on media attention, and their real aim was to garner visibility, not inflict bodily harm. Then again, she’d been hurt once when she was between Thad and a man running to tackle him. Maya was knocked to the ground hard enough to sprain one of her wrists. Thereafter, she took better care when she was in public with her father-in-law close by, a situation she made every effort to avoid.
She was adopted by one guard in particular who, no matter how hard she tried to drive him away, faithfully showed up to both protect and torment her over the years, although she didn’t believe he intended to trouble her as he did. But she wouldn’t have been so loyal given how deliberately, relentlessly rude she was to him.
It was a defense. Mitch Donovan was hired by her father-in-law about a year after Maya and Stu’s wedding, and since she’d had no complaints about the guard he replaced, she didn’t understand why she needed someone new. The head of the Evans security team introduced her to him on a day Stu traveled for work. Mr. Donovan would be available whenever she or the younger Mr. Evans wanted to step out, and here were his pager and cell numbers. Mitch had been reluctant to shake her hand, which she’d found offensive until it happened, at which point she was overwhelmed by a sense of grief so acute her knees buckled. Mitch grasped her elbow to steady her, support she quickly shrugged off in her embarrassment.
“It’s just... you remind me of someone,” she blurted after a lengthy, uncomfortable pause. And he did. Something about his eyes, and a sheen of vitality she associated with a family she used to socialize with back in North Carolina, the Blakes. The likeness was superficial, but it made her horribly homesick, and if possible, even sadder over her empty, soul-sucking marriage.
Maya realized everyone was waiting for her to explain her strange greeting, or maybe they simply hoped she’d resolve the awkwardness she’d created. Sweat bloomed on her forehead and she became aware of the shallow, insufficient breaths she took, which she worried were too loud. She felt unanchored and bizarre and very much hoped she didn’t look it. She checked Mitch’s expression. It did not encourage her.
Her lack of composure was obvious. Worse, she felt like Mitch had shone a spotlight on her most private fears, ones she preferred to pretend she didn’t have and most definitely wanted to keep hidden.
Her marriage was disappointing and unlikely to improve. Her absorbing career was no more than a convenient place to hide. And if she couldn’t achieve happiness with an M.D. under her belt and marriage to a beautiful, wealthy man, something was very, very wrong with her.
And there it was, dang it, the path to the ultimate no-no of all her memories: Aiden. It was Mitch’s fault for bringing him to mind, she decided, since he looked at her in the same penetrating way and exhibited the same physical markers. Aiden symbolized all her missteps up to now, his name synonymous with the more unpleasant consequences of her running away – from him and North Carolina and all the possibly destructive super-secrets he wore like a cloying aftershave. With just a glance in Mitch’s direction, Maya saw starkly the unhappiness of her future as Mrs. Evans, understood too well what she didn’t and never would have with Stu.
She despised Aiden – or at least, she wanted to – for stealing her peace of mind so thoroughly after her wedding, she’d never regained it. That awful dance at the reception, where every second felt like an accusation. His recriminations, issued without actual speech, were like an internal battering ram ripping through her insides from the center of her liver. This marriage is a lie you cannot turn into truth. I’m the one you wanted. You’ve made a terrible mistake. When Mitch Donovan shook her hand, his touch was a direct transmission line to the whole, miserable litany.
And no. Just… no. She would notfeel that draw again, the attraction to Aiden that had solidified her decision to marry Stu when she was finishing college. Back then, she was struggling for purchase on adult life with very little hope she’d achieve it, thinking maybe she had it in her to go to medical school, and how, if she was lucky, she might be able to build a life with Stuart Evans. Stuart had been a guy who, unlike Aiden, didn’t seem like he’d die without her. Stuart was maybe predictable by comparison, bland even… but he never freaked her out with intense, hungry stares that gave her the impression she was about to fall off a thousand-foot ledge. Mostly he never made her feel crazy, like she could suddenly smell the ocean, or feel a sea breeze on her skin; or think she wanted nothing more than to dive into the biggest, deepest body of salt water she could find. She hated swimming in the ocean. All she could think about when she waded in was a statistic on shark attacks, how most of them happened in three feet of water.
“There are about a gazillion things waiting to kill you out there,” Maya explained once when her friend, Kate, questioned her on her saltwater reticence. “People don’t belong in oceans. That’s why God invented swimming pools.” Kate snickered.
“Laugh all you want, Blake,” Maya retorted. “I’ll be your ER doc when you come in with shark’s teeth lodged in your sternum. Or a Man-O-War wrapped around your neck. Don’t think I’ll forget this conversation, either.”
Interactions with Aiden back then felt like a free-fall into chaos when she was already too at odds with herself to cope. And even though she’d refused what Aiden represented – by running to what she thought was safety with Stuart – the memory of Aiden continued to niggle away at her tenuous stability, no outside reminders necessary.
She couldn’t afford to feel gutted every time she ran into Mitch the Security Guard. In fact, she wouldn’t. Her unprompted self-negotiations concerning love and marriage were taxing enough, and she decided she’d do anything to preclude repeat panic attacks triggered by something she could control.
“I would prefer, Mr. Donovan, that you stay out of my personal space as much as possible. I don’t want to be aware of you, so no casual comments, no taking my arm. In fact, if you must address me, don’t make eye contact. Are we clear?”
Mitch’s boss appeared stricken, but Mitch smiled at her indulgently, as if she’d made a weak joke and he wanted to make her feel better about it.
“Of course, Maya.” He stared, without apology, directly in her eyes.
So much for her attempt at a firewall, which meant she’d just have to try harder. “That’s Mrs. Evans to you,” she snapped, pivoting on her heel and hurrying off.
Thereafter she went to heroic lengths to avoid him and repeatedly stated her request for a different escort when one was needed. Everyone except her – and Mitch she supposed, since he always showed up looking all confident and like he had her number – suffered from inexplicable amnesia in these situations; no matter who she spoke with beforehand, no matter how many times she complained about Mitch’s unsuitability, no one listened to her. No one seemed to even remember her complaints, and Mitch was the one who came, without fail, to take her out.
“Did everyone in security get bashed in the head?” she finally asked him. “I don’t want you around. Why can’t you guys understand this?”
“Oh, I understand, Maya.”
Eventually she gave up her public campaign against him and settled for being as hateful as she could to him personally. She texted her need to leave in thirty minutes, then either left immediately to make him scramble, or kept him waiting another two hours. She was dismissive and haughty, impatient and willing to criticize him for all manner of imaginary missteps. Mitch responded by ignoring her. Or he gave her probing looks that dared her to continue her tantrum, until she couldn’t sustain her conviction, and her tirades died without the bloodletting she intended. Then she undid all her hard work with an apology.
“I’m sorry to be so spiteful,” she’d mumble.
Mitch always forgave her, which made her feel even more exposed. “It’s okay, Maya. I get it,” he said, and then he stroked her hair, or squeezed her hand. She had to run – literally turn from him and run – to get away from what he made her feel.
In what Maya considered the most perverse irony of all, she came to find periodic comfort in Mitch’s constant reminders of love, loss, and that guy back home who got away. Thad’s extra-curricular romantic habits, which became much less discreet following his wife’s death due to cancer, had grown to include Maya’s husband, where Stu would play wing man with any number of suspiciously sexy young women, ones who didn’t hesitate to drape themselves all over a married man – at their house or in public, it didn’t matter. Maya seethed at what she saw as Stu’s complicity, and because she thought he made her look weak in front of their friends.
“It’s not like your dad’s personal life is any of my business,” she complained one evening as they prepared for bed, “but I don’t understand why you’re part of it. All those women… it’s like you’re double dating, and you’re not exactly discouraging any of them.” Maya suspected this was precisely the case but hoped she was wrong. This was the first time she’d brought it up, and she badly wanted her husband to take her in his arms and deny he was choosing casual affection with strangers over real intimacy with her.
Instead, Stuart bristled, and she knew she was in for a scolding. “Give the guy a break, Maya,” he said shortly, his condescending tone one she knew too well. She could almost hear the words “you idiot” tacked on the end of his comment, and she slumped to sit on the edge of the bed. Another dead-end conversation where I get to feel guilty over his indiscretions, she mused. Should she point out she was concerned about his behavior, not Thad’s?
“He’s under a lot of pressure at work,” Stu continued. “And Mom’s illness was a terrific drag, something I’d expect you to understand. He deserves to kick up his heels. I’m just along for the ride. It’s like… I don’t know. A father-son bonding thing.”
Her hopes for marital enlightenment sank for the nine hundredth time. She realized how, once again, she’d believed Stuart would act differently if only he understood he was hurting her. He had demonstrated – once again – her feelings were not a consideration for him. Even worse, Stuart’s dalliances became more blatant after this conversation. This was when she came to welcome those pesky introspections Mitch Donovan prompted.
Maya was never aware of asking for relief, but whenever Stuart and Buffy-Number-Whatever went too far in her presence, she felt as though Mitch channeled Aiden, and her fantasy-man, himself, appeared to comfort her. Sometimes when she was truly desperate, she even saw him. In these situations, she no longer cared if Aiden was a made-up psychological defense; he eased the ache of betrayal and shame, and he saved her from making a scene that would have broken her carefully built image of a strong and stable wife, one confident enough in her marriage to overlook a little friendly flirting.
But inside she would be anxious and miserable… and then a moment later, she felt removed, in the same way she used to when she experienced what she thought of as one of Aiden’s mind-wipes, and oh, what she wouldn’t give to have thatprescription on re-order. She could witness something offensive and then find herself unable to recall it, or the event seemed so absurd it no longer mattered. Best of all, she felt cherished after these illusions, truly loved. This sense of herself as attractive and worthy lasted for hours, and nothing – not Stuart’s continued disregard for her, not his most puerile escapades with other women – nothing upset her.
Maya’s favorite of these experiences followed a public demonstration she could not clearly remember. Perhaps it was a kiss Stuart shared with some female guest in their kitchen during a party they hosted, the woman in his lap, their hands inching beneath each other’s shirts, while friends milled around as if the couple’s behavior was nothing unusual. Stuart was no doubt drunk and would use that as his excuse, but Maya would have been appalled and angry and on the verge of tears...
The actual image of them had disappeared from her mind, however, or maybe it was so overshadowed by the contentment that followed, she no longer cared. Aiden was before her and said… she didn’t know what he said, but it launched a reverie that erased her heartbreak and removed all her devastation. By the time Maya was aware again, she felt better than she ever had after one of these compromises. In fact, she felt not only strong, but free, and as if Stuart’s penchant for public fondling might never affect her again. Not her happiness, not her plans for her future, not her confidence in her own ability to love and care for another.
And she finally knew how it felt to be in Aiden’s arms. Amid an intimate crowd and seconds from a volcanic emotional breakdown, Maya had the impression she’d been wrapped in a bubble, a protective cocoon insulating her not just from her own hurt and anger, but also the perceptions of everyone else there. None of the other guests appeared to even see her any longer, meaning no one scrutinized her response to Stu’s make-out session, or worse, looked at her with pity. It was as if her mind manifested her most private wish, and the partygoers all disappeared so she could fully enjoy it.
This time, Aiden came to her like an avenging angel, one sent to protect her and dispense with her agony using violence if necessary. She breathed deeply as her trouble dissipated, lifting away like it was helium-injected; and she felt stable for the first time that evening. Maybe for the first time in months. She found she could also stand tall and open her eyes without dreading what she’d see.
She saw Aiden’s shirtfront clenched in her fists, and Aiden’s face when she looked up. Enfolded in his embrace, Aiden’s voice calmed her, the concern he expressed healing the ragged cuts to the heart she’d received with each and every one of Stuart’s tactless romantic displays.
She felt steady and strong, but also, despite Aiden’s pull on her senses, aware of herself. Which was unusual when Aiden was around. She welcomed the clarity this time.
She faced her dilemma without a preconceived idea of how things should work out between her and Stu; and without censure, she evaluated her own contributions to her marital problems. She saw she was not responsible for Stuart’s myriad discourtesies, but she was guilty of running scared from truths she should have faced years ago.
She was sorry for her dishonesty. She recalled her many misjudgments, starting with those she’d made in Griffins Bay as a senior in college. She regretted her unfair treatment of Aiden, how her efforts to drive away her own fear had compromised not just her, but him, as well. Her confession to him now, conflicting beliefs and all, was immediate.
She thought the words as she focused on his shirtfront. I am so sorry. But I can’t be here with you like this, won’t do this to Stu. Even if he doesn’t care, we’re married and I won’t betray him. Then she raised her gaze to offer Aiden the first clean sentiments she ever had, with no attempt at evasion. But you were right. I shouldn’t have run from you. I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough.She forced a few inches of distance between them and crossed her arms to keep herself from clinging, not just physically, but also to the hope of escape he represented.
Aiden cradled Maya’s face in his hands and swept her tears away with his thumbs. “It’s okay, love. I think you’re going to get the chance to be brave again soon. I just want you to know there’s more out there for you, that this doesn’t have to be enough.” When he released her, his devotion remained behind, a glowing warmth within her fortifying her against what she knew was coming. Which was the end of her belief that she could and should save her relationship with her husband.
This time, she knew how her frustrations with Stu would play out, and it wasn’t with them together. Stu wasn’t leaving her any choice.