The Book Club, Excerpt
Eve Porter stepped out from her house into the brilliance of an early morning sun. She immediately raised her palm to shield her eyes; the piercing light was too strong.
Inside, her house was quiet and dark. Bronte and Finney were asleep in their rooms, the dog was whining, and she hadn’t yet had a cup of coffee. Tom was prowling the rooms with nervous energy, gathering his work and packing last-minute items into his suitcase. Most mornings Eve liked to linger over her coffee, open the windows to the fresh morning breezes and relish her few moments of solitude before the family’s demands pressed her into action. On this morning, Eve felt driven outdoors by her husband’s prickly tension and a nagging guilt she resented. She needed some distance, just a bit of fresh air.
Eve remembered the days when she stayed one step behind Tom as he prepared to go on a business trip. “Here are your tickets. I found your beeper. Can I order you a cab? Don’t you want anything for breakfast? Let me refresh your coffee.” She was his trusty sidekick, or as Tom often put it, he was the captain and she the navigator.
Lately, however, she felt the ship was going down. For no one reason she could articulate, she’d begun looking for lifeboats. It wasn’t so much that she doubted the competence of Tom, it was just that the buttons of his jacket didn’t shine quite as bright anymore. Or perhaps the voyage was just too long.
Eve shook these mutinous thoughts out of her mind and stepped out into the morning air. “Today will be a good day,” she said firmly, silencing her heart murmuring, “He will not ruin my day.” She made her way toward the rustling breezes and birdsong in her garden, turning away from the closed, dark house. The early-morning air smelled sweet and the sun shone softly on the cheery colors of her perennial bed. She bent to admire droplets of dew cupped in the furry leaf of a lady’s mantle.
Today was the first day of summer, she realized, her spirits lifting like a kite. She loved milestones of any sort: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, checks on the calendar, notches on a growth chart. Today would be special, brand-new. She felt it deep inside. Summer was here with sunny days and balmy nights, the informality of barbecues and dips in the swimming pool. She was so relieved to have the grind of the school year finished. She missed playing with her children.
She really should wake them to say goodbye to their father, but they were so tired; she’d let them sleep a bit longer. Finney had a football game at noon and Bronte wanted a ride to the mall at two. With Tom gone for a few days, and the children out of school, she could relax a bit herself. Perhaps even squeeze in a little extra time in her garden this morning, she thought, noting that her tobacco plants needed deadheading.
She slipped to her knees, relishing the coolness of the morning dew that soaked the thin cotton of her pajamas. She no longer expected anyone to help her with the weeding or the planting. The children had complained so bitterly for so many years that she’d stopped demanding their time, and Tom, well, he never had the time or the interest. They had such busy lives and it was her job, as the mother and wife, to make certain all went smoothly in the home. But it was such a large home…and theirs was a large property, too, one of the largest in Riverton. The children were proud of their home and this she felt was her success. She’d decorated the twelve rooms herself, sewn countless yards of drapes and coordinated all the improvements. She’d even landscaped the entire lot, planting with her own delicate hands over fifty shrubs and countless perennials.
Gardening was her hobby after all, she told herself as she dug in the earth. No one asked her to plant these flowers that she adored. So why should she expect them to help? And wasn’t it the mother’s job, even duty, to make a home run smoothly? Wasn’t she indispensable? Still, the thought that no one offered to help rankled as she reached to pull out the offending weeds, careful to get the roots.
The front door swung open and she lifted her gaze to see her husband hurry down the stone steps on his way to the garage. His coattails were flying, he was tripping over his luggage and he sent off sparks of irritation that she could feel clear across the garden. Though his dark suit was immaculate, his white shirt was gleaming and his tie had enough panache to be discreetly admired, her knowing eyes picked up the tight line of his lips that gave his chiseled, tanned face a tautness too familiar of late. Tom wasn’t a vain man. His hair might be thinning at the crown and his waist fuller, but Tom Porter still had movie-star good looks—looks that would have been a hindrance to his medical career except for the sharp intelligence and compassion in his dark eyes.
Eve didn’t see his eyes this morning, however, because the light was too bright. She squinted and caught only the shadow of his passing.
“I’ll phone you tonight,” he called over his shoulder with a distracted air.
She didn’t reply and instead rested her hands on her thighs and watched him raise the trunk of his sedan, then toss in his new garment bag. Next he gingerly rested his computer bag beside it. Eve knew exactly what was in that overnight bag she’d purchased for him for his fiftieth birthday. She’d laid in bed last night with her hands clenched in her lap silently watching as he packed it. The memory still irked.
“Why do you always wait until the last minute to pack?” she’d asked crossly. “It’s almost midnight, Tom. I’m tired and we have to get up early. Your plane leaves at seven so you’ll have to leave by six.”
“I didn’t have time to do it any earlier.” His tone was sharp and he tossed a folded boxed shirt into the bag with an angry flip.
Eve bit her tongue, knowing this was true. She didn’t wish to annoy him when he was so pressed for time. Still, she couldn’t help the frustration boiling inside her. It didn’t seem to concern him in the least that she would be kept awake for as long as it took him to pack.
“Why didn’t you ask me to help? All I needed was your schedule. I’d have been happy to do it for you.”
“I told you I was leaving.”
“Yes,” she replied in a tone that implied How can you be so obtuse? “But I didn’t know to where, or for what, until yesterday.”
She used to always know where he was going, what topic he was speaking on, and made a game of packing for him. They’d laughed when she held ties up to his face and test-kissed him to make her selection. She took such pride in his appearance, as she did in her children’s. Recently, however, the trips piled one on top of the other as his reputation grew. He’d sometimes forget to tell her when he was going out of town until he needed something, and then he’d inform her as an afterthought. Like yesterday’s “Oh, Eve, could you make sure I have enough shirts for San Diego?” Whether she’d lost track of his schedule or he’d stopped sharing it with her, she couldn’t remember anymore. All she knew was that somehow, she no longer packed for him. So she lay in bed, still and hard-limbed, watching.
“Look, just let me get it done,” he said, rummaging through his closet, laying her aside. “Go on to sleep. I’ll be a while yet.”
She heard his dismissal, closed her mouth and folded her arms across her chest. In a cool silence that had grown over the past years, she watched him pack for the two-day trip, knowing exactly how he reasoned his choices. Three pairs of underwear, two fresh and an extra to change into should he go for a swim, two pairs of dark, cashmere wool socks and a spare polo shirt. He selected three Egyptian cotton shirts and a matching Hermes tie, a swimsuit, a flask of Scotch because he liked to work late in his room and, finally, the leather toiletries case. She’d meant to ask him why he still carried condoms in his bag now that she’d had her tubes tied, but never did.
She knew he wasn’t fooling around and didn’t want him to think that she didn’t trust him. They’d been married for twenty-three years next month and a woman knew her husband well enough after all that time. She and Tom had an agreement, one forged on their wedding night and held sacred. They’d sworn that neither one of them would have an affair without first telling the other. Divorce or whatever might follow, but they’d vowed to have honor and respect in their marriage. They prided themselves on their honesty.
Kneeling in the garden with the sun’s heat pressing on her back, Eve envisioned those condoms in that toiletry bag and her bare hands dug into the black soil as she forced out a deep dandelion root. A large worm clung to the soil around the weed, wriggling and coiling when she shook it off. She heard the car trunk slam shut and raised her eyes again.
“Honey, what hotel will you be at?” she called out.
“Oh, I don’t remember.”
He sounded winded and she cocked her head, her hands still in the soil. He stood looking at her with an odd expression on his face, as though he were waiting for her to say something more, or perhaps he was wrestling with what to say to her. Her breath stilled and her attention focused as she studied him for some signal, one hint that he wanted a kiss goodbye or a familiar pat on the rear as he hugged her. He used to love to hug her.
A new stubbornness kept her from leaping up and running into his arms as she always had before, a tenuous clinging to self-esteem after his rebuff in bed last night. She would not go to him first.
Keeping her silence, staying in place, she noticed his hair was damp with perspiration. He was a heavy sweater—all the Porters were—but it wasn’t that hot this morning and he’d just come outdoors from the air-conditioning. He’d need a shower by the time he got to San Diego, she worried.
“I’ll call you when I get there,” he said, and her ears perked at the hint of sadness in his voice. “Give you my room number.”
This was the usual modus operandi these days, unlike back when she carefully posted the hotel name and number on the kitchen bulletin board, up high beside the car pool schedule, the pizza lunch schedule and emergency telephone number. She nodded and opened her mouth to say goodbye, to wish him a good trip, maybe to say I love you, but he’d already turned his back.
She bent over her garden and dug her small, oval nails into the soil, squeezing it between her fingers. Her eyes swam in water, and through the white noise of pain in her ears, she heard the car door slam, the roar of an engine and the grind of tires along dry cement. When the sound of his car disappeared, she felt a tremendous sense of loss. They couldn’t continue on like this, she thought, sniffing loudly. When he came home they’d have a long talk, maybe go out to dinner. Wiping her eyes with her elbow, she methodically tugged out scores of the tiny invasive clovers, ripping them out one by one, quick and neat.
By six o’clock that evening Tom was long out of her thoughts. Her day was busy and she didn’t have time to dwell. In truth, Tom was gone so much of the time lately that she’d learned to cope without him. She was chief cook and bottle washer around here. The children depended on her. She knew she was the axis upon which their worlds spun. On this first day of summer, Finney had won the football game for his team with a score in the last quarter and Bronte had come home with a triumphant smile and bags of clothes she’d bought on sale at Nordstrom’s with her birthday money. Eve wiped her hands at the sink, feeling especially pleased with herself because, despite all the chauffeuring, she’d found time to shop at the farmer’s market and bake an angel food cake to serve with the fresh berries. She’d surprise the children and serve it with a cheery, “Happy first day of summer!”
“Children, dinner!” she called up the stairs. After hearing their mumbled replies from behind closed bedroom doors, she hurried out the door to her garden to pluck a few flowers for the table. So early in the season, it was slim pickings. Many of the flowers were just gaining ground. She stood with her chin in her palm, considering the selection.
“Mom! Telephone!” Finney’s voice cracked on the final syllable.
She smiled, then checked her watch. “Is it a solicitation?” She couldn’t abide those pesty calls at the dinner hour. She snipped off one rose, then two more, careful of the slant. After a moment, she heard Finney again.
“Mom! She says it’s important.”
Irritation tightened her lips. These telephone solicitors were getting so cagey. “Well, who is it?”
“She says she’s from San…San…something hospital.”
Eve felt a chill and a cloud passed overhead. For a moment, time seemed to stand still. As though she were a remote stranger looking through a lens, she turned her head and saw her world, sharpening the focus. She saw her lovely redbrick Prairie-style house with its imposing porte cochere lined in front by broad-leafed rhododendron, the shadow of her fourteen-year-old daughter in the windows on her way to the dining room for dinner with a telephone to her ear, her lanky twelve-year-old son leaning against the frame of the open front door awaiting her instructions with the impatience of youth. This was her perfect world and instinctively she knew she’d better take a good last look.
Her breath exhaled in a prayer. “You’re just being ridiculous,” she told herself. She had such a flair for the dramatic. Tom was on grand rounds at San Diego Hospital. It was a message from him. What was the matter with her lately?
“Tell them I’m coming!” she called to Finney. She gathered the roses, then ran up the front steps, surprised at how wobbly her knees felt. She ignored Finney’s darkened gaze and went straight to the phone lying on the kitchen counter.
“Hello,” she managed to get out through dry lips. “This is Mrs. Porter.”
“Hello, Mrs. Porter,” came the soft, even tones of the faceless woman. “This is Dr. Raphaelson at San Diego Medical Center.”
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“Are you married to a Dr. Thomas Porter? From River-ton, Illinois?”‘