Saturday, August 14
Woodstock, New York
If you came back now, you'd never have to worry about losing him.
My soon-to-be-ex-husband's texts sent a tickle up my spine, crawling like a spider, vertebra by vertebra, until the feeling exploded down my shoulders, making goose bumps rise in spite of the warm mountain air breezing through the open window. Why was George talking like this now, after he and I had finally reached our tentative verbal agreement regarding custody of our two-year-old?
I flipped the notifications away and checked my latest text from George's mom, Ruth, instead. There was little Alex, happy and sandy, on the Haywoods' massive porch in Montauk. Immediately, I felt that typical mother pull-the desire for a little space from your kid at war with your primal instinct to be hugging on them, wiping their boogers, and popping Cheerios into their tiny little mouths at all times. It was strange to be so far away from Alex for a whole week, like my left limb had been abandoned hundreds of miles away, but I knew it was necessary. I needed this time to get everything together.
I sent a heart-eyes emoji back to Ruth and set my phone on the rough-hewn wooden countertop, just as the bartender, a twenty-something woman with blunt-cut bangs, a septum piercing, and a wreath of ivy inked across her shoulder, put my plate before me.
"It's hot," she said as she pushed it an inch or so toward me. "Watch your fingers. Refill?" She pointed to my glass, empty apart from sudsy foam crawling up the side.
"Why not?" I smiled, and she traded one glass for another, which she filled from a tap behind her, then set another draught of amber-yellow liquid in front of me. The beer in question was a locally sourced Saison, hinted with citrus and low on alcohol content, my preference in the two years since I'd had Alex. My Sunday night margaritas with my former best friend, Willa-extra salt, no kids-had been my only real exception.
I took a sip, and the bartender ran a rag over each tap, then turned back to me. "You up here just for the weekend?"
"Oh," I said, setting my drink down. To this day, I still got nerves striking up a conversation with someone new, especially someone who seemed as cool and self-assured as this girl did, unless it was for a story and I had a notepad or a tape recorder in hand. "Er, the week, actually, but I just got in. I came straight here."
"Good choice," she said. She glanced around the place, a bar-slash-café that was caught between the lunch and dinner rushes and empty apart from a guy reading the paper in the corner. "From the city?"
"Technically, yes," I said. "Brooklyn. But I'm actually originally from the Adirondacks area. Old Forge."
"Cool," she said. "I'm from around here, but I have a cousin up there. Bit of a different vibe, isn't it?"
"That's an understatement," I said with a laugh. "Feels like it's nothing but city people up here now."
"Right?" the girl said. "But hey, good for business, at least."
I smiled politely, then took a bite of my burger, topped with a fried egg. Yellow ooze ran down the side of the bun, and I wiped my finger with a napkin, just as the girl pushed an extra stack my way. Through the window, I took in the view of downtown Woodstock, a crunchy-chic mountain town smack-dab between the city and my hometown of Old Forge. Clear blue skies on top. A stretch of shops, selling everything from crystals to comfort shoes, on the bottom; the outline of the Catskill Mountains sandwiched in between. Most people saw something charming, a storybook-after all, even the name of Woodstock's main downtown strip was quaint-Tinker Street-as if a child with a set of wooden blocks and interlocking train tracks had made it up after their lunchtime nap. But for me, between the hippies and hipsters, tarot card readers and twee dog breeds, it was hard to see anything but the city, spreading its tendrils wide.
Even after years living there, I always felt like I had to be on in Brooklyn, and I feared Woodstock would be no different, but I didn't really have a choice-George would never let me take Alex back up to Old Forge, but he had finally agreed to let our son split his time between Brooklyn and here.
"You still have family up in the Adirondacks?" the bartender asked.
I chewed quickly, surprised she wanted to keep talking, but not unhappy about it. "My mom and sister," I said, picturing Mom in the lounge chair she'd reupholstered three times, her leg propped on a floral ottoman-she was homebound for the next six weeks with a severely broken ankle. I felt awful not being there to help her, but Rachel, my sister, was staying with her, at least. They were probably eating Craisins and watching bad reality TV right now, and my heart swelled. God, I missed them. My life with George had been so very different than theirs, and it had made it hard, sometimes, to truly connect. But all that was changing now.
"So what brought you down, then?" the bartender prompted. "Tired of peanut-shell-covered dive bars?"
"No," I said with a laugh. "I mean, don't get me wrong, the beer is better here and in the city, but I never really minded. I wanted to be a journalist. And at the time, to do that, you really had to move to the city."
"And did you do it? Become a journalist?" she asked, using a rag to work at a single errant stain on an otherwise immaculate bar top.
"I did," I said.
Her eyebrows shot up. "Have I read anything of yours?"
"Maybe," I said. "My biggest bylines were The Atlantic, Forbes. Glamour, when it used to be in print. But that was a while ago now . . . I got married, had a baby. It's been years since I wrote anything of substance, but I'm trying to get back to it."
The girl nodded. "So where's the fam now?"
"Oh," I said, caught off guard. "Well, I'm actually planning on moving here . . . er, with my son. That's why I'm up. My hus-" I paused, took a quick breath. "My soon-to-be-ex-husband, he's staying in the city, and my family, like I said, is up in Old Forge, but that's too far for me to take my son. Woodstock is close enough between the two places so our toddler can split time between both. So I'm here to see about securing a rental, getting a daycare spot, while my kid is with my in-laws for the week. It's tricky, working everything out like this, but I don't really have a choice."
I stopped talking, felt my face redden. I didn't want to overshare. Not again.
The girl only scratched at her ivy tattoo, apparently unalarmed by my info dump. "Soon-to-be-ex-husband," she said. "I've got one of those, too. Pain in my ass."
"Oh, you do?" She looked far too young to be married, much less have an ex. "But no kids, right?"
"No," she said. "Thank god." She bit her lip. "Sorry. It just seems messier. At least all we really had to fight about was the brand-new Xbox."
"It is messier," I said, skin prickling at the thought of George's texts. After my leaving in February and a spring spent dealing with George's threats to take Alex away from me, my ex had finally cooled down over the summer, agreeing to this Woodstock plan. The texts were nothing more than a last-ditch attempt to throw me. They had to be.
I looked down at my plate, popped a fry into my mouth. It still surprised me that I was up here at all. The downfall of my marriage had been slow, like a house that badly needs an update-cracks in the foundation, popped floorboards-but then fast, like said house had been struck by a hurricane, flooded beyond repair. And I'd been dealing with it all on my own. I felt awful complaining about my problems to my mom and Rachel, when they were always struggling with money and I was practically rolling in it; and my beloved sister-in-law, Cassandra, was no longer speaking to me. Only Willa had heard the whole of it, her warm demeanor, casual intimacy, and relative newness in my life like a port in the storm. I'd trusted her, told her all, and look how that had turned out. Hell, I probably should have just gotten a therapist.
From the outside, you'd never have guessed anything was wrong with George and me. We'd been that couple, always holding hands, always doing everything together. Morning oat-milk lattes, lunch at the French sandwich shop on Seventh, long walks around Prospect Park, meandering through the mossy-lush Vale of Cashmere on the north side. Retreating back into the brownstone on Prospect Park West, flicking on a thousand-dollar pendant lamp and sinking into an Eames Lounge Chair, the same one I'd seen once in the MoMA, when I'd used an expired student ID to get a discounted ticket. Heading to one function or another with his family, the Haywoods; his brother, Henry, and Henry's wife, Cassandra, by our side. Dressed to the nines, while the servers and bartenders and other have-nots did their best to blend into the scenery like pieces of silverware.
The sheen of glamour, of ease, to our entire relationship was the kind of sheen that only comes when money is absolutely no object at all. George was no finance guy bringing in low six figures or a landlord pushing people out of their apartments for a few hundred extra bucks in rent. He was from the kind of money that didn't have to think about it one bit. George headed up the Haywood family's nonprofit, providing micro loans to women from developing nations, leaving the less altruistic elements of the family business to Henry and his dad.
I'd been so lucky, I'd thought once. I had found the dream. A smart, generous man who could give me the world. Who could remove money completely from the equation of our lives. For a struggling journalist from Old Forge, for someone who was balancing state school loans with my share of rent in a modest apartmen, even into my thirties, it was more than I could have ever hoped for. I'd fallen for all the glitz and glamour, oblivious then to the darker side of what that money can buy.
"So how old's your little guy?" the bartender asked.
I smiled. "His name's Alex. And he turned two in July. A total handful, but a sweet one." I pictured him with George's parents now, building his block towers and getting irrationally angry if anyone tried to offer him help. Anyone but George, that is. Alex used to build his blocks chaotically, shapes tilted every which way, like a miniature village spreading out, but now he only built straight up, like a tower, because George had insisted, over and over and over again, that that was the only proper way to do it.
"I have nieces and nephews," the bartender went on. "They're definitely a handful. The good thing is, he's young. My sister split with her first husband when her daughter was three, and the girl's super well-adjusted now. Loves her mom, loves her dad. Loves the stepmom and stepdad, too. My sister swears coparenting is better. You actually get some time off," she said with a laugh.
I forced a laugh, too, but even though George had finally agreed to something, this picture of coparenting still felt unattainable for us. Would he try to control us, even when he wasn't there? Would I relent when he made one demand or another about how to raise our son? Was little Alex bound to repeat our patterns? Either ruling with an iron fist, like George, or, even worse, becoming a pushover like me?
I didn't have an answer, but I had to at least try to break the cycle-for both of us.
"I'm Blaire, by the way," the bartender said, bringing me back to the present. "If you're soon to be a local, might as well know my name. I'm at this place just about always and, I know I'm biased, but it's the best food and beer in town."
"Mary," I said. "Nice to meet you."
For a moment, I felt that familiar thrill of meeting someone new, someone kind, someone who wanted to listen, a potential friend I could open up to. I let myself imagine it. Moving up here, coming to this café every weekend, when I didn't have Alex, drinking low-ABV beer while sunshine spilled through a window, making this new friend.
Then I pictured Willa the last time I'd seen her, back in June, at the spot that had become our go-to, the fairy lights casting a warm yellow glow across her icy-blond hair, a bit of salt on her bottom lip, sticking to the Yves Saint Laurent lipstick in classic red she always wore. Making me feel secure, comforted, like I mattered. Willa was my first genuine new friend since I'd become a mom, and that last night together, she'd been so earnest, insisting that she cared for me, that I could tell her anything.
But she didn't, and I couldn't. Her actions had proven as much.
I took another bite of my burger, and the bartender started wiping down the back counter, and I tried to focus on my goals for the week. In addition to setting everything up for Alex and me, I had an interview scheduled for Tuesday, a profile for Forbes, a female CEO who was working entirely out of a mountain house in the Catskills after spending two decades pounding the pavement every day in the city. It was part of a larger package on "the new face of the corporate world," and it was my first print piece since I'd stopped taking assignments to have Alex. It paid two dollars a word, and even though there were plenty more well-connected and well-bylined writers to assign it to, a former editor of mine-a bridge that hadn't been burned-had given it to me as a chance to "get back in the game."
I looked out the huge windows, watching Woodstock's residents and visitors walk by, mentally beginning to run through a list of topics to chat about with the "girl boss" of the moment . . .
I heard myself gasp before I felt it.
Willa was walking by. Right here in Woodstock. Her hair-shorter now, and brown-shining in the midday sun, a black leather tote slung over one shoulder, an extra-long, extra-yellow lace sundress kissing the stone sidewalk: my friend, my drinking buddy, my companion in bitching about how terrible the terrible twos were while our kids slid down the slides.
Copyright © 2024 by Leah Konen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.