India Taylor had her camera poised as an unruly army of nine-year-old boys ran across the playing field after the soccer ball they had been heatedly pursuing. Four of them collapsed in a heap, a tangle of arms and legs, and she knew that somewhere in the midst of them was her son, Sam, but she couldn’t see him as she shot a never-ending stream of pictures. She had promised to take photographs of the team, as she always did, and she loved being there, watching them on a warm May afternoon in Westport.
She went everywhere with her kids, soccer, baseball, swimming team, ballet, tennis. She did it not only because it was expected of her, but because she liked it. Her life was a constant continuum of car pools, and extracurricular activities, peppered with trips to the vet, the orthodontist, the pediatrician when they were sick or needed checkups. With four children between the ages of nine and fourteen, she felt as though she lived in her car, and spent the winters shoveling snow to get it out of the garage and down the driveway.
India Taylor loved her children, her life, her husband. Life had treated them well, and although this wasn’t what she had expected of her life in the early years, she found that it suited her better than expected. The dreams that she and Doug had once had were no longer relevant to life as they now knew it, who they had become, or the place they had drifted to since they met twenty years before in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.
The life they shared now was what Doug had wanted, the vision he had had for them, the place he wanted to get to. A big, comfortable house in Connecticut, security for both of them, a houseful of kids, and a Labrador retriever, and it suited him to perfection. He left for work in New York at the same time every day, on the 7:05 train out of the Westport station. He saw the same faces, spoke to all the same people, handled the same accounts in his office. He worked for one of the biggest marketing firms in the country, and he made very decent money. Money wasn’t something she had worried about much in the early days, not at all in fact. She had been just as happy digging irrigation ditches and living in tents in Nicaragua, Peru, and Costa Rica.
She had loved those days, the excitement, the challenges, the feeling that she was doing something for the human race. And the occasional dangers they encountered seemed to fuel her.
She had started taking photographs long before that, in her teens, taught by her father, who was a correspondent for The New York Times. He spent most of her childhood years away, on dangerous assignments in war zones. And she loved not only his photographs, but listening to his stories. As a child, she dreamed of a life like his one day. And her dreams came true when she herself began freelancing for papers at home while she was in the Peace Corps.
Her assignments took her into the hills, and brought her face-to-face with everything from bandits to guerrillas. She never thought of the risks she took. Danger meant nothing to her, in fact she loved it. She loved the people, the sights, the smells, the sheer joy of what she was doing, and the sense of freedom she had while she did it. Even after they finished their stint with the Peace Corps, and Doug went back to the States, she stayed in Central and South America for several months, and then went on to do stories in Africa and Asia. And she managed to hit all the hot spots. Whenever there was trouble somewhere, for a while at least, India was in it, taking pictures. It was in her soul, and in her blood, in a way that it had never been in Doug’s. For him, it had been something exciting to do for a time before he settled down to “real life.” For India, it was real life, and what she really wanted.
She had lived with an insurgent army in Guatemala for two months, and had come up with fantastic photographs, reminiscent of her father’s. They had won her not only praise internationally, but several prizes, for her coverage, her insight, and her courage.
When she looked back on those days later on, she realized she had been someone different then, a person she thought of sometimes now, and wondered what had happened to her. Where had that woman gone, that wild free spirit filled with passion? India still acknowledged her, yet she also realized she no longer knew her. Her life was so different now, she was no longer that person. She wondered sometimes, in her dark room, late at night, how she could be satisfied with a life so far removed from the one she had once been so in love with. And yet, she knew with perfect clarity, that she loved the life she shared with Doug and the children in Westport. What she did now was important to her, as much as her earlier life had been. She had no sense of sacrifice, of having given up something she loved, but rather of having traded it for something very different. And the benefits had always seemed worth it to her. What she did for them mattered a great deal to Doug and the children, she told herself. Of that, she was certain.
But there was no denying, when she looked at her old photographs, that she had had a passion for what she did then. Some of the memories were still so vivid. She still remembered the sheer excitement of it, the sick feeling of knowing she was in danger, and the thrill of capturing the perfect moment, that explosive split second in time when everything came together in one instant in what she saw through her camera. There had never been anything like it. If nothing else, she was glad she’d done it, and gotten it out of her system. And she knew without a doubt that what she had felt was something she had inherited from her father. He had died in Da Nang when she was fifteen, after winning a Pulitzer the year before. It had been all too easy for India to follow in his footsteps. It was a course she couldn’t have altered at the time, or wanted to. She needed to do it. The changes she had made came later.
She returned to New York a year and a half after Doug had gone home, when he had finally issued an ultimatum. He had told her that if she wanted a future with him, she had better “get her ass back to New York” and stop risking her life in Pakistan and Kenya. And for only a brief moment, it had been a tough decision. She knew that a life much like her father’s was out there for her, maybe even a Pulitzer like his one day, but she knew the dangers too. It had ultimately cost him his life, and to some extent his marriage. He had never really had a life he cared about beyond the moments when he risked everything for the perfect shot, with bombs exploding all around him. And Doug was reminding her that if she wanted him, and any kind of normalcy, she was going to have to make a choice sooner or later, and give up what she was doing.
At twenty-six, she married Doug, and worked for The New York Times for two years, taking photographs for them locally, but Doug was anxious to have children. And when Jessica was born shortly before India turned twenty-nine, she gave up her job at The Times, moved to Connecticut, and closed the door on her old life forever. It was the deal she had agreed to. Doug had made it very clear to her when they got married that once they had children, she had to give up her career. And she had agreed to do it. She thought that by then she’d be ready. But she had to admit, when she left the Times and turned her attention to full-time motherhood, it was harder than she expected. At first, she really missed working. In the end, she only looked back once or twice with regret, but eventually she didn’t even have time for that. With four children in five years, she could barely keep her head above water or take time out to reload her camera. Driving, diapers, teething, nursing, fevers, play groups, and one pregnancy after another. The two people she saw most were her obstetrician and her pediatrician, and of course the other women she saw daily, whose lives were identical to hers, and revolved only around their children. Some of them had given up careers as well, or were willing to put their adult lives on hold until their children were a little older, just as she had. They were doctors, lawyers, writers, nurses, artists, architects, all of whom had given up their careers to tend to their children. Some of them complained a lot of the time, but although she missed her work, India didn’t really mind what she was doing. She loved being with her children, even when she ended the days exhausted, with another baby on the way, and Doug came home too late at night to help her. It was the life she had chosen, a decision she had made, a deal she had lived up to. And she wouldn’t have wanted to leave her children every day to continue working. She still did the occasional rare story close to home, if she had time for it, once every few years, but she really didn’t have time to do it more often, as she had long since explained to her agent.
What she hadn’t known, or fully understood before Jessica was born, was just how far from her old life it would take her. Compared to the life she had once led, taking photographs of guerrillas in Nicaragua, and dying children in Bangladesh, or floods in Tanzania, she had had no idea just how different this would be, or how different she would become once she did it.
She knew she had to close the door on those early chapters of her life, and she had, no matter how many prizes she had won, or how exciting it had been, or how good she was at it. In her mind, and Doug’s especially, giving it up was the price she had had to pay for having children. There was just no other way to do it. Some of the women she knew could juggle work at home, a couple of her friends were still lawyers and went into the city two or three days a week, just to keep their hand in. Others were artists and worked at home, some of the writers struggled with stories between the midnight and four A.M. feedings, but eventually gave it up, because they were too exhausted to do it. But for India, it was impossible. There was no way to continue her career, as she had once known it. She kept in touch with her agent and had done local stories from time to time, but covering garden shows in Greenwich had no meaning for her. And Doug didn’t even like her doing that much. Instead, she used her camera as a kind of mothering tool, constantly making visual records of her children’s early years, or taking photographs of her friends’ children, or for the school, or just playing with it as she did now, watching Sam and his friends play soccer. There was no other way to do this. She was bound and chained, set in cement, rooted to her life in a thousand ways, visible and otherwise. And this was what she and Doug had agreed to. And what they had said they wanted. And she had lived up to her end of the bargain, but her camera was always in her hand, at her eye, or slung over her shoulder. She could never imagine a life without it.
Once in a while, she mused about working again once the kids grew up, maybe in another five years when Sam was in high school. But that was inconceivable to her just now. He was only nine, Aimee was eleven, Jason was twelve, and Jessica fourteen. Her life was a constant merry-go-round of activities between them, after-school sports and barbecues and Little League and piano lessons. The only way to do it all was if you never stopped, never thought of yourself, and never sat down for five minutes. The only respite she had from it was when they went to Cape Cod in the summer. Doug spent three weeks there with them every year, and the rest of the time he commuted on weekends. They all loved their Cape Cod vacations. She took terrific photographs at the Cape every year, and got a little time for herself. She had a darkroom in the house, just as she did in Westport. And at the Cape she could spend hours in it while the kids visited with friends, or hung out on the beach, or played volleyball or tennis. She was less of a chauffeur at the Cape, the kids could ride their bikes everywhere and it gave her more free time, especially in the last two years, since Sam was a little older. He was growing up. The only thing she wondered from time to time was how grown up she was. Sometimes she felt guilty about the books she never had time to read, the politics she had lost interest in. It felt sometimes as though the world beyond was moving on without her. She had no sense anymore of growth or evolution, it was more a question of treading water, cooking dinner, driving kids and getting from one school year to another. But there was nothing about her life that made her feel that she had grown in recent years.
India’s life had been virtually the same for the last fourteen years, since Jessica was born. It was a life of service, sacrifice, and commitment. But the end result was tangible, she could see it. She had healthy, happy children. They lived in a safe, familiar little world that revolved entirely around them. Nothing unsavory or unsafe or unpleasant ever intruded on them, and the worst thing that ever happened to them was an argument with a neighbor’s child, or a trauma over lost homework. They had no concept of the loneliness she had felt as a child, with one constantly absent parent. They were unfailingly ministered to and cared for. And their father came home every night for dinner. That was especially important to India, as she knew only too well what it was like not to have that.
India’s children lived in a different universe from the children she had photographed two decades before, starving in Africa, or jeopardized in unimaginable ways in underdeveloped countries, where their very survival was in question daily, fleeing from their enemies, or lost to natural aggressors like illness, floods, and famine. Her children would never know a life like theirs, and she was grateful for it.
India watched her younger son pull himself from the pile of little boys who had cascaded on top of him as he scored a goal, and wave at his mother.
India smiled, the camera clicked again, and she walked slowly back to the bench where some of the other mothers were sitting, chatting with each other. None of them were watching the game, they were too busy talking. This was so routine to them that they rarely watched, and seldom saw what their children were doing. The women were just there, like the bench they were sitting on, part of the scenery or the equipment.
One of them, Gail Jones, looked up as India approached, and smiled when she saw her. They were old friends, and as India pulled a fresh roll of film out of her pocket, Gail made room for India to sit down. There were finally leaves on the trees again, and everyone was in good spirits. Gail was smiling up at her, as she held a cardboard cup with cappuccino in it. It was a ritual of hers, particularly in the freezing cold winters when they watched their kids play ball, with snow on the ground, and they had to stamp their feet and walk around to stay warm as they watched them.
“Only three more weeks and then school’s over for this year at least,” Gail said with a look of relief as she took a sip of the steaming cappuccino. “God, I hate these games, I wish to hell I’d had girls, one at least. Life defined by jockstraps and cleats is going to drive me nuts one of these days,” she said with a rueful smile as India smiled at Gail in answer, clicked the film into place, and closed her camera. Listening to Gail complain was familiar to her. Gail had been complaining for the last nine years about giving up her career as a lawyer.
“You’d get sick of ballet too, believe me. Same idea, different uniform, more pressure,” India said knowingly. Jessica had finally given up ballet that spring, after eight years, and India wasn’t sure if she was relieved or sorry. She would miss the recitals, but not driving her there three times a week. Jessica was now playing tennis with the same determination, but at least she could ride her bike there on her own, and India didn’t have to drive her.
“At least ballet shoes would be pretty,” Gail said, standing up to join India as they began to walk slowly around the field. India wanted to take some more shots from a different angle, to give to the team, and Gail walked along beside her. They had been friends ever since the Taylors moved to Westport. Gail’s oldest son was the same age as Jessica, and she had twin boys Sam’s age. She had taken a five-year break between them, to go back to work. She had been a litigator, but had quit finally after she had the twins, and she felt she’d been gone too long now to ever consider going back to her old law firm. As far as she was concerned, her career was over, but she was older than India by five years and, at forty-eight, claimed she no longer wanted to be trapped in the courtroom. She said all she really missed was intelligent conversation. But despite her complaints, she occasionally admitted that it was easier just being here, and letting her husband fight his daily wars on Wall Street. Like India, her life was defined by soccer games and car pools. But unlike India, she was far more willing to admit that her life bored her. And there was a constant sense of restlessness about her.
“So what are you up to?” Gail asked amiably, finishing the cappuccino. “How’s life in mommy heaven?”
“The usual. Busy.” India took a series of photographs as she listened distractedly to her. She got another great shot of Sam, and even more when the other team scored a goal against them. “We’re leaving for the Cape in a few weeks, when school lets out. Doug can’t come up for his vacation this year till August.” He usually tried to take it before that.
“We’re going to Europe in July,” Gail said without enthusiasm, and for an instant India envied her. She’d been trying to talk Doug into it for years, but he said he wanted to wait until the children were older. If he waited much longer, India always reminded him, they’d be gone and in college, and going without them. But so far she hadn’t convinced him. Unlike India, he had no real interest in traveling far from home. His adventuring days were over.
“Sounds like fun,” India said, turning to look at her. The two women were an interesting contrast. Gail was small and intense with short dark hair, and eyes that were two burning pools of fiery dark chocolate. India was long and lean, with classic features, deep blue eyes, and a long blond braid that hung down her back. She claimed she always wore it that way because she never had time to comb it. As they walked side by side, they were two very striking women, and neither of them looked anywhere near forty, let alone a few years past it. “Where in Europe are you going?” India asked with interest.
“Italy and France, and a couple of days in London. Not exactly high adventure, or high-risk travel, but it’s easy with the kids. And Jeff loves going to the theater in London. We rented a house in Provence for a couple of weeks in July, and we’re going to drive down to Italy, and take the kids to Venice.” To India, it sounded like a wonderful trip, and worlds away from her lazy Cape Cod summer. “We’ll be there for six weeks,” Gail went on. “I’m not sure Jeff and I can stand each other for that long, not to mention the boys. After ten minutes with the twins, Jeff goes crazy.” She always talked about him the way people did about irritating roommates, but India was always sure that beyond the grousing, Gail actually loved him. In spite of evidence to the contrary, India believed that.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, you’ll have plenty to see,” she said, though being trapped in a car with twin nine-year-old boys and a fourteen-year-old for extended periods of time didn’t sound like India’s idea of heaven either.
“I can’t even meet a handsome Italian, with the kids along and Jeff chasing after me, asking me to translate for him.” India laughed at the portrait Gail painted, and shook her head. It was one of Gail’s quirks, talking about other men, and sometimes more than just talking. She had confided to India frequently that she’d had several affairs in the twenty-two years she and Jeff had been married, but she had surprised India by saying that in an odd way, it had actually improved their marriage. It was a form of “improvement” India had never been drawn to, nor approved of. But she liked Gail enormously, despite her indiscretions.
“Maybe Italy will make Jeff more romantic,” India suggested, slinging her ever-present camera over her shoulder, and glancing down at the small, electric woman who had once been a terror in the courtroom. That, India found easy to imagine. Gail Jones took no nonsense from anyone, and certainly not her husband. But she was a loyal friend, and in spite of her complaints, a devoted mother.
“I don’t think a transfusion from a Venetian gondolier would make Jeff Jones romantic. And the kids with us twenty-four hours a day sure as hell won’t help it. By the way, did you hear that the Lewisons are separated?” India nodded. She never took much interest in the local gossip. She was too busy with her own life, her kids, and her husband. She had a handful of friends she cared about, but the vagaries of other people’s lives, and peering into them with curiosity, held no magic for her. “Dan asked me to have lunch with him.” At that, India cast a glance at her, and Gail smiled mischievously at her.
“Don’t look at me like that. He just wants some free legal advice, and a shoulder to cry on.”
“Don’t give me that.” India was uninvolved in the local scandals, but she was not without a degree of sophistication. And she knew Gail’s fondness for flirting with other people’s husbands. “Dan has always liked you.”
“I like him too. So what? I’m bored. He’s lonely and pissed off and unhappy. That equals lunch, not a steamy love affair necessarily. Believe me, it’s not sexy listening to a guy complain about how often Rosalie yelled at him about ignoring the kids and watching football on Sundays. He’s not in any condition for anything more than that, and he’s still hoping he can talk her into a reconciliation. That’s a little complicated, even for me.” She looked restless as India watched her. According to Gail, or what she said anyway, Jeff hadn’t excited her in years, and India knew it. It didn’t really surprise her. Jeff was not an exciting person, but it made India think as she listened. She had never actually asked Gail what, in her opinion, was exciting.
“What do you want, Gail? Why bother with someone else, even for lunch? What does it give you?” They both had husbands, full lives, kids who needed them, and enough to do to keep them out of trouble and constantly distracted. But Gail always gave India the impression that she was looking for something intangible and elusive.
“Why not? It adds a little spice to my life, just having lunch with someone from time to time. And if it turns into something else, it’s not the end of the world. It puts a spring in my step, I feel alive again. It makes me something more than just a chauffeur and a housewife. Don’t you ever miss that?” She turned to India then, her eyes boring into hers, much as they must have done cross-examining a defendant in the courtroom.
“I don’t know,” India said honestly. “I don’t think about it.”
“Maybe you should. Maybe one day you’ll ask yourself a lot of questions about what you didn’t have and didn’t do, and should have.” Maybe. But to India, at least, cheating on her husband, even over lunch, didn’t seem like the perfect answer, far from it. “Be honest. Don’t you ever miss the life you had before you were married?” Her eyes told India she wouldn’t tolerate anything less than full disclosure.
“I think about the things I used to do, the life we had before. . . . I think about working . . . and Bolivia . . . and Peru . . . and Kenya. I think about the things I did there, and what it meant to me then. Sure I miss that sometimes. It was great, and I loved it. But I don’t miss the men that went with it.” Particularly since she knew Doug appreciated all that she’d given up for him.
“Then maybe you’re lucky. Why don’t you go back to work one of these days? With your track record, you could pick it up again whenever you want. It’s not like the law, I’m out of the loop now. I’m history. But as long as you have your camera, you could be right back in the fray tomorrow. You’re crazy to waste that.”
But India knew better. She knew what her father’s life had been like, and theirs, waiting for him. It was more complicated than Gail’s perception of it. There was a price to pay for all that. A big one.
“It’s not that simple. You know that. What am I supposed to do? Just call my agent tonight and say put me on a plane to Bosnia in the morning? Doug and the kids would really love that.” Even the thought of it was so impossible that all she could do was laugh at it. She knew, as Gail did, that those days were over for her. And unlike Gail, she had no need to prove her independence, or abandon her family to do it. She loved Doug, and her kids, and knew just as surely that he was still as much in love as she was.
“They might like it better in the end than you getting bored and crabby.” It surprised India to hear her say that, and she looked at her friend with a questioning expression.
“Am I? Crabby, I mean?” She felt a little lonely at times, and maybe even nostalgic about the old days now and then, though not often anymore, but she had never become seriously dissatisfied with what she was doing. Unlike Gail, she accepted the point to which life had brought her. She even liked it. And she knew the children wouldn’t be small forever. They were already growing up rapidly, and Jessica had started high school in September. She could always think about going back to work later. If Doug let her.
“I think you get bored, just like I do sometimes,” Gail said honestly, facing her, their children all but forgotten for the moment. “You’re a good sport about it. But you gave up a hell of a lot more than I did. If you’d stayed with it, by now you’d have won a Pulitzer, and you know it.”
“I doubt that,” India said modestly. “I could have wound up like my father. He was forty-two when he died, shot by a sniper. I’m only a year older, and he was a lot smarter and more talented than I was. You can’t stay out in that kind of life forever. The odds are against you, and you know it.”
“Some people manage it. And if we live to be ninety-five here, so what? Who will give a damn about it when we die, India, other than our husbands and our children?”
“Maybe that’s enough,” India said quietly. Gail was asking her questions she almost never allowed herself to think of, although she had to admit that in the past year it had crossed her mind more than once that she hadn’t done anything truly intelligent in years, not to mention the challenges she’d given up. She’d tried to talk to Doug about it once or twice, but he always said he still shuddered to think of the things they’d done in the Peace Corps and she’d done after. Doug was a lot happier now. “I’m not as sure as you are that what I would be doing would change the world. Does it really matter who takes the pictures you see of Ethiopia and Bosnia and on some hilltop, God knows where, ten minutes after a rebel gets shot? Does anyone really care? Maybe what I’m doing here is more important.” It was what she believed now, but Gail didn’t.
“Maybe it isn’t,” Gail said bluntly. “Maybe what matters is that you’re not there taking those pictures, someone else is.”
“So let them.” India refused to be swayed by her.
“Why? Why should someone else have all the fun? Why are we stuck here in goddamn suburbia cleaning apple juice up off the floor every time one of the kids spills it? Let someone else do that for a change. What difference does that make?”
“I think it makes a difference to our families that we’re here. What kind of life would they have if I were in some two-seater egg-crate somewhere crawling in over the trees in bad weather, or getting myself shot in some war no one has ever heard of, and doesn’t give a damn about. That would make a difference to my children. A big one.”
“I don’t know.” Gail looked unhappy as they started walking again. “Lately, I think about it all the time, about why I’m here and what I’m doing. Maybe it’s change of life or something. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that I’m afraid I’ll never be in love again, or look across a room at a man who makes my heart leap right out of my chest looking at him. Maybe that’s what’s driving me crazy, knowing that for the rest of my life Jeff and I are going to look at each other, and think okay, he’s not great, but this is what I got stuck with.” It was a depressing way to sum up twenty-two years of marriage, and India felt sorry for her.
“It’s better than that, and you know it.” At least she hoped so, for Gail’s sake. It would be terrible if it wasn’t.
“Not much. It’s okay. Most of all, it’s boring. He’s boring. I’m boring. Our life is boring. And ten years from now I’ll be nearly sixty and it’ll be even more boring. And then what?”
“You’ll feel better when you go to Europe this summer,” India said kindly, as Gail shrugged a shoulder in answer.
“Maybe. I doubt it. We’ve been there before. Jeff will spend the entire time bitching about how badly they drive in Italy, hating whatever car we rent, and complaining about the smell of the canal in the summer in Venice. He’s hardly a romantic figure, India, let’s be honest.” India knew that Gail had married him twenty-two years before because she was pregnant, and then lost the baby after three months, and spent another seven years after that trying to get pregnant, while fighting her way to the top in her law firm. India’s life had been a lot simpler than Gail’s had been. And her decision to give up her career had been less agonizing for her. Gail was still asking herself if she’d done the right thing nine years after retiring when the twins were born. She had thought that she’d been ready to do it, and it was obvious now that she wasn’t. “Maybe having lunch with other men, and having an “indiscretion’ with them now and then, is my way of compensating for what Jeff will never give me, for what he isn’t, and probably never was.” India couldn’t help wondering if her affairs only made her more dissatisfied with the life she was living. Maybe she was looking for something that didn’t exist, or wasn’t out there, not for them at least. Maybe Gail was simply unwilling to admit that, for them, that part of their lives was over. Doug didn’t come home from the office with roses in his arms for her either. But India didn’t expect that from him. She accepted, and liked, what they had grown into. As he did.
“Maybe none of us will ever be madly in love again, maybe that’s just the bottom line here,” India said practically, but Gail looked outraged.
“Bullshit! If I thought that, I’d die. Why shouldn’t we be?” Gail looked incensed. “We have a right to that at any age. Everyone does. That’s why Rosalie left Dan Lewison. She’s in love with Harold Lieberman, which is why Dan isn’t going to get her back. Harold wants to marry Rosalie. He’s crazy about her.”
For an instant, India looked startled. “Is that why he left his wife?” Gail nodded. “I really am out of it, aren’t I? How did I miss that one?”
“Because you’re so good and pure and such a perfect wife,” Gail teased. She and India had been friends for a long time, and were each the kind of friend the other could rely on. They provided each other with total acceptance, and India never criticized her for the men she slept with, although she didn’t approve or fully understand why she did it. The only explanation was that Gail had a kind of emptiness that nothing seemed to fill, and hadn’t in all the years that India had known her.
“Is that what you want, though? To leave Jeff for someone else’s husband? What would be different?”
“Probably nothing,” Gail admitted. “That’s why I’ve never done it. Besides, I guess I love Jeff. We’re friends. He just doesn’t provide much excitement.”
“Maybe that’s better,” India said thoughtfully, mulling over what Gail had said to her. “I had enough excitement in the old days. I don’t need that anymore,” India said firmly, as though trying to convince herself more than her friend, but for once Gail was willing to accept what she said at face value.
“If that’s true, you’re very lucky.”
“We both are,” India affirmed to her, wishing she could make her feel better. She still didn’t think that lunch with Dan Lewison, and men like him, was a solution. Where did that lead? To a motel between Westport and Greenwich? So what? India couldn’t even imagine sleeping with someone else. After seventeen years with Doug, she didn’t want anyone else. She loved the life that she and Doug shared with their children.
“I still think you’re wasting your talent,” Gail prodded her, knowing full well it was the only chink in India’s armor, the only subject on which India occasionally dared to ask herself pointed questions. “You should go back to work one of these days.” Gail had always said that India’s talent was so enormous that it was a crime to waste it. But India always insisted she could go back to it later, if she wanted. For now, she didn’t have the time or the inclination to do more than the occasional story. She was too busy with her kids, and didn’t want to rock the boat with Doug. “Besides,” she teased Gail, “if I go back to work, you get to go out to lunch with Doug. Do you think I’m that stupid?” They both laughed at the suggestion, as Gail shook her head, her eyes dancing with amusement.
“You have nothing to fear. Doug’s the only man I know who’s even more boring than my husband.”
“I’ll accept that as a compliment on his behalf,” India said, still laughing. He certainly wasn’t exciting, or even colorful, but he was a good husband, and good father. That was all she needed. He was solid, decent, loyal, and a good provider. And besides, no matter how boring Gail thought he was, India loved him. She didn’t have the lust that Gail had for intrigue and romance. She had given all that up years before, and before Gail could say anything else, the whistle blew and the soccer game ended, and within seconds, Sam and Gail’s twin sons had come thundering over to them.
“Great game!” India said, smiling broadly at Sam, relieved in some way to be out of the conversation. Gail always made her feel as though she had to defend herself, and her marriage.
“Mom, we lost!” Sam looked at her with disdain, and then put his arms around her and hugged her just a little too tight, as he dodged the camera swinging from her shoulder.
“Did you have fun?” India asked, kissing the top of his head. He still had that wonderful little-boy smell of fresh air and soap and sunshine.
“Yeah, it was okay. I scored two goals.”
“Then it was a good game.” They began walking to the car with Gail and her boys, who were clamoring to go out for ice cream, and Sam wanted to join them. “We can’t. We have to pick up Aimee and Jason.” Sam groaned at the prospect, and India waved at Gail as they got into their van, and India slid behind the wheel of her station wagon. It had been an interesting conversation. Gail certainly hadn’t lost her touch at cross-examination.
And as India started the car, she glanced at her son in the rearview mirror. He looked tired, but happy. There was dirt all over his face, and his blond hair looked as though he’d combed it with an eggbeater, and just looking at him told her once again why she wasn’t climbing through bushes in Ethiopia or Kenya. She didn’t need more than that dirt-smeared face to explain it. So what if her life was boring?
They picked up Aimee and Jason at school, and headed home. Jessica had just walked in, there were books all over the kitchen table, and the dog was going crazy wagging his tail and barking. It was life as she knew it, as she had chosen to live it. And the thought of living it with anyone but Doug depressed her. This was exactly what she wanted. And if it wasn’t enough for Gail, then she was sorry for her. In the end, they all had to do what worked best for them. And this was the life India had chosen. Her camera could wait another five or ten years, but even then she knew she wouldn’t leave Doug to go trekking halfway around the world to find adventure. You couldn’t have both. She had figured that out years before. She had made a choice, and she still thought it was a good one. And she knew that Doug appreciated what she was doing.
“What’s for dinner?” Jason asked, shouting over the frantic barking of the dog and the clamoring of his siblings. He was on the track team at school, and starving.
“Paper napkins and ice cream, if you guys don’t get out of the kitchen and give me five minutes’ peace,” India shouted over the din, as he grabbed an apple and a bag of potato chips and headed to his room to do his homework. He was a good kid, a sweet boy. He worked hard at school, got good grades, did well in sports, looked just like Doug, and had never given them any trouble. He had started discovering girls the year before, but his greatest foray into that realm had been a series of timid phone calls. He was far easier to deal with than his fourteen-year-old sister, Jessica, whom India always said was going to be a labor lawyer. She was the family spokesperson for the downtrodden, and rarely hesitated to lock horns with her mother. In fact, she loved it. “Out!” India shooed them all out from underfoot, put the dog outside, and opened the refrigerator with a pensive expression. They’d already had hamburgers twice this week, and meat loaf once. Even she had to admit that she was lacking inspiration. By this point in the school year, she couldn’t think up any more creative dinners. It was time for barbecues and hot dogs and ribs, and time on the beach on the Cape. She settled on two frozen chickens, and stuck them in the microwave to defrost them, as she pulled out a dozen ears of corn and began to clean them.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, thinking about what Gail had said that afternoon, sifting it as she did sometimes, trying to decide for herself if she had any regrets about her lost career. But she was still convinced all these years later that she had made the right decision. Besides, it was a moot point anyway, she told herself, there was no way she could have continued traveling around the world as a journalist, or even working locally, and still have done the right thing for her children. She owed this to them. And if Gail found her boring as a result, so be it. At least Doug didn’t. She smiled, thinking of him, as she put the corn in a pot of water and set it on the stove, and then took the chickens out of the microwave, put butter and spices on them, and put them in the oven. All she had to do now was put some rice on the stove, make a salad, and presto magic, dinner. She had gotten good at it over the years. Not fine cuisine, but fast and simple and healthy. She didn’t have time to make them gourmet meals with everything else she did. They were lucky she didn’t take them to the drive-thru at McDonald’s.
She was just putting dinner on the table when Doug walked in, looking slightly harried. Barring a crisis at the office, he usually came home promptly at seven. Door to door, it was a twelve-hour day for him, or slightly longer, but he was a good sport about the commute, and he kissed the air somewhere near her head, as he set down his briefcase and helped himself to a Coke from the refrigerator, and then looked over and smiled at her. She was happy to see him.
“How was your day?” she asked, wiping her hands on a towel. There were wisps of wheat-colored hair framing her face, and she never thought much about what she looked like. She was lucky, she didn’t have to. She had clean, healthy, classic looks, and the braid she wore suited her. Her skin was good, and she looked about thirty-five instead of forty-three, with a long, slim figure that looked well in shirts and turtlenecks and jeans, which was the uniform she wore daily.
Doug set down the Coke and loosened his tie as he answered. “Not bad. Nothing exciting. I had a meeting with a new client.” His business life had been uneventful for the most part, and when he had problems, he shared them with her. “What did you do today?”
“Sam had soccer, and I took some pictures for the team. Nothing terrific.” As she listened to herself speak, she thought of Gail, and how dull she accused their lives of being. They were. But what more could she expect? Bringing up four kids in Connecticut was hardly glamorous, or fraught with excitement. And India couldn’t see how Gail’s illicit activities could change that. She was kidding herself if she thought that made a difference, or improved things.
“How about dinner at Ma Petite Amie tomorrow night?” Doug offered as she called the kids in to dinner.
“I’d love it,” she smiled, and within the next millisecond chaos erupted in the kitchen. But they always enjoyed their meals together. The children talked about their day, their friends, their activities, while complaining intermittently about teachers and the amount of homework they’d been given. And Aimee blew the whistle on the news that a new boy had called Jessica three times that afternoon, and he sounded really old, like maybe even a senior, and Jessica looked daggers at her. And for most of the meal, Jason provided them with entertainment. He was the family clown, and made editorial comments on everything. Aimee helped her clean up afterward, and Sam went to bed early, exhausted by his soccer game and the two goals he’d scored. Doug was reading some papers from the office by the time India finally joined him in their bedroom.
“The natives seem to be keeping you busier than usual tonight,” he commented, glancing up from the report he was reading.
There was a staid, solid quality that India had loved about him right from the beginning. He was tall and lean and lanky, with athletic good looks, and a boyish face. At forty-five, he was still very handsome, and looked like a college football hero. He had dark hair and brown eyes, and was given to tweeds and gray suits for work, and corduroy pants and Shetland sweaters on weekends. And in a quiet, wholesome way, India had always found him very attractive, even if Gail did think he was boring. And in many ways, he was the ideal husband for her. He was solid and reliable and unflappable, generally, and fairly reasonable in the demands he made of her.
She sat down in a big, comfortable chair across from him, and tucked her legs under her, trying to remember, just for an instant, the boy she had met in the Peace Corps. He was not so very different from the man she sat across from now, but there had been a glimmer of mischief in his eyes then that had enchanted her at the time, when she was young and filled with dreams of daring and glory. He was no longer mischievous, but he was decent and reliable, and someone she knew she could count on. Much as she had loved him, she didn’t want a man like her father, who was never there, and risked and eventually lost his life in the pursuit of his wild, romantic notions. War had been romance to him. Doug was far more sensible than that, and she liked knowing she could count on him to be there for her.
“The kids seemed a little wound up tonight. What’s up?” he asked, putting his report down.
“I think they’re just excited about the end of the school year. It’ll do them good to get to the Cape, and get it out of their systems. They need some downtime, we all do.” By this point in the school year, she was always sick to death of her car pools.
“I wish I could take time off earlier than August,” he said, running a hand through his hair, thinking about it. But he had to oversee some marketing studies for two important new clients, and he didn’t want to leave town prematurely.
“So do I,” India said simply. “I saw Gail today. They’re going to Europe this summer.” It was pointless to try and talk him into that again, she knew, and it was too late to change their plans for this summer anyway, but she would have liked to. “We really should do that next year.”
“Let’s not start that again. I didn’t go to Europe till I finished college. It’s not going to kill them to wait a couple of years to do that. Besides, it’s too expensive with a family our size.”
“We could afford it and we can’t cheat them of that, Doug.” She didn’t remind him that her parents had taken her all over the world when she was a baby. Her father had taken assignments wherever he thought it would be fun, at vacation times, and taken her and her mother with him. The traveling they’d done had been a rich experience for her, and she would have liked to share that with their children. “I loved going with my parents,” she said quietly, but he looked annoyed, as he always did when she brought up the subject.
“If your father had had a real job, you wouldn’t have gotten to Europe as a kid either,” Doug said, almost sternly. He didn’t like it when she pushed him.
“That’s a dumb thing to say. He had a real job. He worked harder than you or I did.” Or you do now, she wanted to add, but didn’t. Her father had been tireless and passionately energetic. He had won a Pulitzer, for God’s sake. She hated it when Doug made comments like that about him. It was as though her father’s career was meaningless because he had earned his living with a camera, something that seemed childishly simple to her husband. No matter that he had lost his life in the course of what he was doing, or won international awards for it.
“He was lucky, and you know it,” Doug went on. “He got paid for what he liked to do. Hanging out and watching people. That’s kind of a fortuitous accident, wouldn’t you say? It’s not like going to an office every day, and having to put up with the politics and the bullshit.”
“No,” she said, a light kindling in her eyes that should have warned him he was on dangerous ground, but he didn’t see it. He was not only belittling the heroic father she revered, but he was casting aspersions on her own career at the same time, who she was, and who she had been before they married. “I think what he did was a hell of a lot harder than that, and calling it a “fortuitous accident’ is a real slap in the face.” To her, and to her father. Her eyes were blazing as she said it.
“What got you all riled up today? Was Gail off on one of her tangents?” She had been, of course. She was always stirring the pot in some way, and India had said as much to Doug before, but the things he had just said about her father had really upset her and had nothing to do with Gail. It had to do with her, and how Doug felt about the work she did before they were married.
“That has nothing to do with it. I just don’t see how you can discount a Pulitzer prize-winning career and make it sound as though he got a lucky shot with a borrowed Brownie.”
“You’re oversimplifying what I said. But let’s face it, he wasn’t running General Motors. He was a photographer. And I’m sure he was talented, but he also probably got lucky. If he were alive today, he’d probably tell you the same thing himself. Guys like him are usually pretty honest about getting lucky.”
“For chrissake, Doug. What are you saying? Is that what you think of my career too? I was just “lucky’?”
“No,” he said calmly, looking mildly uncomfortable about the argument he had inadvertently backed into at the end of a long day. He was wondering if maybe she was just tired or the kids had gotten on her nerves or something. Or maybe it was Gail’s rabble-rousing. He had never liked her, and she always made him uncomfortable. He thought she was a bad influence on his wife with her constant complaining. “I think you had a hell of a good time doing what you did for a while. It was a good excuse to stay out and play, probably a little longer than you should have.”
“I might have won a Pulitzer too by now, if I’d stuck with it. Have you ever thought of that?” Her eyes met his squarely. She didn’t really believe that, about the Pulitzer, but it was a possibility certainly. She had already made her mark in the business before she gave it up to have children and be a housewife.
“Is that what you think?” he asked her, looking surprised. “Are you sorry you gave it up? Is that what you’re saying to me?”
“No, it’s not what I’m saying. I’ve never had any regrets. But I also never thought of it as “playing.’ I was damn serious about what I did, and I was good at it . . . I still am. . . .” But just looking at him, she could see that he didn’t understand what she was saying. He made it sound like a game, like something she had done for fun before she settled down to real life. It wasn’t “fun,” although she had had a good time at it, but she had risked her life repeatedly to get extraordinary pictures. “Doug, you’re belittling what I did. Don’t you understand what you’re saying?” She wanted him to understand. It was important to her. If he did, it made what Gail had said a lie, that she was wasting her time now. But if he thought what she’d given up was unimportant anyway, what did that make her? In some ways, it made her feel like nothing.
“I think you’re oversensitive, and you’re overreacting. I’m just saying that working as a photojournalist is not like working in business. It’s not as serious, and doesn’t require the same kind of self-discipline and judgment.”
“Hell, no, it’s a lot harder. If you work in the kind of places my father and I did, your life is on the line every second you’re working, and if you’re not careful and alert constantly, you get your ass blown off and you die. That’s a hell of a lot tougher than working in an office, shuffling papers.”
“Are you trying to make it sound like you gave up a lifetime career for me?” he asked, looking both annoyed and startled, as he got up and walked across the room to open the can of Coca-Cola she’d brought him. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty?”
“No, but I should get a certain amount of credit at least for my accomplishments. I shelved a very respectable career to come out here to the suburbs and take care of our kids. And you’re trying to make it sound like I was just playing around anyway, so why not give it up? It was a sacrifice for me to do that.” She looked at him intently as he drank his soda, wondering just what he did think about her career now that he had opened Pandora’s box. And she didn’t like what she was seeing in it. It was a real disregard for what she had done, and given up for him.
“Are you sorry you made the “sacrifice’?” he asked bluntly, setting the can down on the little table between them.
“No, I’m not. But I think I deserve some credit for it. You can’t just discount it.” But he had, that was what had upset her so badly.
“Fine. Then I’ll give you credit. Does that settle it? Can we relax now? I had a long day at the office.” But the way he said it only made her angrier, as though he was more important than she was. He picked up his papers again then and was obviously determined to ignore her, as she looked at him in disbelief at what he had said to her. He had not only discounted her career, but her father’s. And the way he had said it had really hurt her. It was a lack of respect that she had never felt from him before, and it made all of Gail’s comments that afternoon not only real, but valid.
She didn’t say another word to him until they went to bed that night, and before that, she stood for a long time in the shower, thinking it all over. He had really upset her, and hurt her feelings. But she didn’t mention it to him when she got into bed. She was sure he was going to bring it up himself and apologize. He was usually pretty aware of those things, and good about apologizing when he hurt her.
But he said not a word to her when he turned off the light, and he turned his back and went to sleep, as though nothing had happened. She didn’t say good-night to him, and she lay awake for a long time, thinking about what he had said, and what Gail had said to her, as she lay beside him, and listened to him snoring.
Excerpted from Bittersweet by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.