Roger was in bed reading “The New York Times” at 8:30 p.m. after a three-hour ride back from the airport in steady snow. He’d tipped the cab driver fifty dollars. Christian and Bianca had been asleep by the time he’d gotten home and Alex was in her flannel pajamas with her novel and the white noise machine on. She’d put the newspaper on his nightstand hoping to avoid being the center of his attention for the evening. It appeared she had succeeded.
“How did you get hooked on this white noise stuff?” Roger asked.
Her addiction to the sound machine had always vexed him. Roger liked to be in control of things and not being able to hear every nocturnal sound in their home made him feel vulnerable in his sleep, but he let Alex retain this one holdover from her single life. It wasn’t much to ask considering that when he’d met her she smoked cigarettes, was on a first-name basis with most of the bartenders downtown, was seeing a psychiatrist and was in love with an alcoholic.
Alex had given up a lot to become Mrs. Holloway and everyone she knew reminded her on a regular basis that she was better off for it.
“You need a white noise machine when you’re a single woman living in a haunted mansion on the corner of Chester and Whitworth,” was Alex’s reply as she switched off the light on her nightstand.
She was referring of course to the dilapidated 19th Century Gothic home where she and Will had lived in an apartment before he left for rehab. It had been Roger who’d secured Will’s place in that exclusive retreat on the lake, where Will and about thirty others including a well-known soap opera actress, an NBA standout and an aged rock star would take anti-anxiety medicines, drink lots of coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk about their feelings.
It turned out that Roger, who was a friend of Will’s parents, had called Alex because he wanted her to cooperate with a plan to save Will. She was to pack his bags and tell him they were meeting friends for a weekend at a ski resort when in reality she would be dropping him off at a posh rehab facility, where his parents would convince him he had no choice but to stay and be regenerated into an Upstanding Citizen.
As far as Will’s family was concerned, they could take or leave Alex. She was a nice girl from the wrong side of the tracks, but it was more than likely she would be a casualty of a stage in Will’s life which they hoped would eventually look like a detour on an otherwise straight path to success. Selling insurance just wasn’t challenging enough for Will, his father thought, and so he’d already hatched a plan to send the boy, who was nearly 29, to law school after rehab. Will would just need to pass the LSATs, but surely that would not be a problem.
Alex felt powerless in the face of such well-laid plans and she thought it probable that she should comply. Certainly she and Will could not continue on their current path, with her going to work every day and him putting in a brief appearance at his office before a business lunch with cocktails leaked into one long happy hour that ended at last call.
Two weeks after Will left, Alex was on the phone scheduling an appointment with a client. As she stared down at her planner, she realized that, without Will, it had become possible to make plans with complete and total faith that they would come to fruition. There were no last-minute desperate phone calls or impromptu parties or unanticipated chances to hop in the back of a limousine and head for D.C. with the crew just for the fun of it. Will’s absence had removed completely all the drama that had existed in her life, which was both good and bad.
She came home with takeout, watched “American Idol” and went to bed in a sweatshirt after turning on the white noise machine that drowned out the sounds of clanging radiators, footsteps on the stairs and laughter in the hallways. All this time, Alex had been a good girl, a boring girl, and it was amazing how quickly and easily she fell back into her old routine.
But she did miss Will. After he called and said his parents had agreed to pay for an extended stay at the lakeside retreat, believing he was getting the help that he needed, she told herself she should stop wearing his UVA sweatshirt to bed every night. She bought a set of flannel pajamas with Eeyore on them. Her personal mascot.
She’d continued to see Roger on a regular basis because she was part of a team of flaks spinning a major campaign to convince the historic preservationists to step aside as his company built 150 single-family homes right across from a revered Civil War battlefield. With Will safely tucked away in rehab and Roger on the cusp of announcing his plans to cover with asphalt and vinyl siding some 200 acres of Berkshire County, Roger and Alex were meeting for lunch at least once weekly.
Their mutual acquaintances viewed Roger and Alex as a couple before they knew that’s what they were. In fact, it was Lara Donegal, the bitter second wife of Roger’s partner Clyde, who had suggested to Roger that with Will out of the way, Alex would need another “sugar daddy.” Until then, it had not occurred to Roger that he could date a woman 20 years younger than himself.
But in many ways, they were a better match than Will and Alex ever had been. They were both workaholics, logging long hours at the office to avoid the disturbing silence of their rather depressing cubicles at home. (Roger was recently divorced.)
She would want children, he was sure of it. All of them did. So Roger let Alex know straight away that he had no intentions of playing Mr. Mom again. He’d raised two children, put them through college, and it had been exhausting. If she wanted to be the mother of his children, then she should plan on resigning from the working world for a couple of decades and trading her jaunty Volkswagen in for a minivan. He told Alex this as soon as he realized it was what he wanted, because at 48, he didn’t care to waste time on the reverse psychology games that dominated the dating habits of 30-year-olds.
It had sounded like a generous offer then, Alex thought. She remembered how she’d envisioned long walks through a neighborhood with sidewalks and mature trees, pushing a stroller toward a four-bedroom Colonial with a pink nursery and a white crib.
And with catalogs from Pottery Barn she had been able to create almost exactly the vision she had conjured long before Bianca was born, before Christian came along. It looked like what she had pictured, but it didn’t always feel like it. There was a certain kind of loneliness that came from never being alone.
At one point Roger had seemed to renege on his vow not to ever babysit and told Alex that he really wanted her to “get a hobby – something you enjoy.”
But then when she told him she’d like to go to a yoga class at the Community Center the following Saturday, Roger said he’d already made plans to play golf. She could go next time.
It had been a long day for Alex with the snow coming down in sheets and Bianca and Christian home from school. She had worried that Roger’s flight would be delayed and that he would need to stay in Washington overnight because of the snow. She was relieved when she heard his key turning in the lock.
Alex closed her eyes and listened to the white noise drowning out the sound of Roger’s rustling newspaper pages. She imagined she was a starfish on a warm sandy beach, waiting for a wave to pull her under.