Staring down at the pictures that have arrived anonymously in the mail on this hot August afternoon, I am not sure what to make of them. As an artist, I have often been accused of seeing things differently than most. Of living in an overly visual world filled with color, music and drama. Lots of drama. This is why I try hard to remain calm and to focus on only that which I see before me. The man in the photos is my husband of the past eight years. He is sitting on a couch, his head leaned back, his eyes closed, biting his lip in an all too familiar way. The second photo is shot from further back and reveals a girl with a mane of blonde curls down on her knees, her head buried in his lap. It’s a joke, I tell myself. It has to be, and yet I’m not laughing.
I immediately suspect my asshole brother in law has put him up to this. Fletcher is traveling with Pete on a tour of the United States, having been hired to document the journey. Petros Cardenopolis is the lead singer of the band Albatross, my soul mate, and the father of our two children, Brooklyn, five and Lilly, three. Fletcher is married to my older sister, Susanna, for reasons none of us understand.
Susanna is a real estate lawyer. She is strong, intelligent and very disciplined. At the age of twenty two, she married her college sweetheart, Jake Demsky, a criminal lawyer who has since become a district attorney. They were the ideal couple until Susanna turned thirty and suddenly left Jake, declaring her love for Fletcher Hannigan, a struggling photographer none of us had ever heard of. We were all stunned, including Jake, who here, six years later, still claims he and Susanna were happy.
Fletch, as he insists we call him, is as opposite of Jake as possible. Jake is a polite, classically good looking, California guy. He has sandy blonde hair, deep blue eyes and a strong surfer’s body. Fletcher looks like something that would wash up onto the shore after having been shipwrecked and tossed around in the sea for a few months. He’s out of shape, greasy, and has the bulging eyes of a walrus. He is the kind of guy who wears loud Hawaiian shirts and dirty, torn jeans to every occasion. He slams guys on the back and swallows women in over enthusiastic bear hugs, even when he’s just met them. My younger sister Stephanie and I can’t stand him.
Our mom has done her best to accept him, but our father has remained nearly speechless since his arrival. Not only was Jake the son he’d never had, but it’s no secret that Susanna was his favorite. His golden child, who always did the right thing. He was a fierce defender of every decision she ever made, but this has left him baffled. My dad has never been a big talker to begin with but these days he’s almost mute.
I can imagine Fletcher thinking that pictures such as these would be really funny. Pete’s being away so often has always raised a lot of suspicion as to what really goes on in our marriage. People don’t want to believe that we are as boring as we say we are. The man onstage and the guy who comes to Thanksgiving dinner are in such contrast that it’s just assumed I am, at best, naive to believe that he is faithful to me. I can see Fletcher setting this up, but what I can’t see is Pete going along with it.
Stuffing the photos back into the envelope they arrived in, I notice that they are not addressed to Mrs. Cardenopolis as I had thought. They are instead addressed to Mr. Cardenopolis and now that I look more closely I see that there is no postage stamp. These have not been sent to our mailbox, they have been placed, and as warm a day as it is, it sends a shiver down my spine.
Brooklyn stands at the front door calling down the driveway to me. She has her father’s olive skin, but my green eyes and features. In fact, were it not for her complexion, she would look exactly as I did at five. Her wavy, sun streaked hair falls messily down to her shoulders as did mine, and she appears lean and athletic, although in truth we both have a tendency to trip over our own feet. My mom was a professional tennis player throughout her early twenties and it is her we have to thank for our beautiful, albeit deceiving, build.
“Mommy, there is something for me?” Brooklyn asks.
Lilly pushes between her and the heavy door, running out onto the porch. At three, she has yet to loose her baby fat and still resembles a Greek cherub. Like her grandfather Christos, and her Uncle Basil, she has dark hair and big brown eyes. She is a Cardenopolis through and through, far more so than even her father who inherited his mother’s blue green eyes and has lighter hair. She hurries down the front steps to the brick pavers of the driveway that have been baking in the record breaking heat.
“Lilly, stop,” Brooklyn yells, trying to warn her because yesterday it was she who ran out and burned her feet.
It’s too late. Lilly starts jumping up and down, shrieking in pain as the heat burns through the soles of her feet. I run to grab her while Brooklyn calls to me that she’ll start running water in the tub. She had to soak in the bath for an hour yesterday before she could be convinced that she’d ever be able to walk again. Like me, she has a tendency towards drama. I carry Lilly through the house, her cries echoing around the cavernous empty rooms of a home I don’t know what to do with.
Rather than filling the tub in one of the three guest bathrooms we have, Brooklyn has naturally gone back to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom that she and Lilly share. Lilly is hysterically flailing as I drop the mail on the floor and attempt to pull off her clothes. Brooklyn sympathetically tries to tell her she’ll be okay, but she’s not just hurt, she’s angry. As I place her in the water, I warn Lilly not to throw herself, but of course she doesn’t listen and starts to slip under, upsetting her just that much more. I pull her up and she clutches my arm while blowing snot bubbles. I tell her to calm down and after a minute ask Brooklyn to hand me a tissue. When she doesn’t hear me due to Lilly’s continued crying I look over, just in time to see her going through the mail.
“Put that down!” I order, as she’s about to open the envelope of pictures.
“What is it? Is it for me?” she asks excitedly.
“No. Do you see your name on it? Don’t touch things that aren’t yours,” I snap, snatching it out of her hand.
“It looked like a present or something,” she defends.
“Well, it’s not.” I assure her. “Just hand me a tissue will you?”
I drop the envelope that is either a cruel joke or about to challenge every belief I have about my marriage and the life we are living, and I wipe Lilly’s nose. I don’t know how to deal with this and so for the time being I just kick it out of the way, both literally and figuratively.
Brooklyn asks to be allowed to watch TV and goes into my room, rather than all the way out to the family room that is too far away. Lilly starts to settle and asks for her rubber ducky. I hand it to her and think about how Pete’s tour is nearly over and he’s going to come home expecting me to have unpacked and decorated this house and I’ve done neither. We moved in on a Tuesday in June and he left on Wednesday before there had been a chance to even make the beds. He’s left this all up to me and I still haven’t figured out where to begin. The only ones who would be more shocked by my lack of accomplishment would be his family.
The Cardenopolis Family built this house. It is what they are known for, and they have been in Architectural Digest far more times than anyone. In fact, the magazine is just waiting for us to give them the word so that they can feature this house as well. Pete’s Uncle Elias drew up the plans, Pete’s dad oversaw every detail and most of the materials were provided by Pete’s other uncles, Nicos and Dimitris. Pete’s brother, Basil and his cousin Theo designed and put in all of the landscaping. Pete’s mother Helena and his Aunt Desiree are both interior designers. This is potentially huge.
The girls and I are scheduled to drive up to my parent’s house in northern California tomorrow, and to continue up to Lake Tahoe the next day where Pete will be joining us for his sister Leni’s wedding. I have run out of time.
I drop my head to my knees, my stomach in knots as the images in the photographs flash through my mind. Pete wouldn’t think they were funny. He would never allow this to happen, and yet I have no explanation for how such pictures could exist. I know the business my husband is in. I’ve seen the way women throw themselves at him, at times brazenly pushing me out of the way. I told him from the start that I couldn’t marry someone with the lifestyle I thought he had chosen, because I never wanted to be where I sit now. He swore to me that he wanted no one but me, and would always feel that way. His family told me they’d never seen him so in love and that we were meant to be together. My sister, Stephanie, (who had married his brother Basil) insisted that he could be trusted. Everyone said he’d never looked at another girl since the day he met me and my mom told me a love like this would not come along again. He wrote me long love letters and beautiful songs that drew out for me the life we could have. He was everything I ever wanted, and so in the end I allowed myself to believe him.
Later that night when he calls to check in, as he does almost every night, I don’t answer. Instead I lay there in the dark, wondering what has happened.
It is expected that our summers will be spent at the lake. Pete’s family owns over three acres of beachfront property on which his parents, as well as his Uncle Elias and Aunt Desiree, have built homes. From the Bay Area where most of the family lives, it is only a three hour drive, but for us, living in LA, it is considerably less convenient. Still, especially since we’ve had kids, our presence is required in order to keep the peace. We spent ten days there in June right before the move and then the girls and I were supposed to go back up for the Fourth of July. When Lilly came down with the flu and we had to postpone, I was secretly delighted. The lake is beautiful and I get along with Pete’s family, but I’m a painter and a loner. Too many group activities can drive me over the edge.
Between the two families there are eight kids, ten grandchildren and any number of in laws. I have made all the excuses I can, but now Leni’s wedding is only a week away, and I can no longer avoid going up.
Today Brooklyn, Lilly and I load up the Volvo with luggage, toys, DVDs and snacks. We have a six hour drive ahead of us just to get to my parent’s Walnut Creek house, where we’ll spend the night. Tomorrow Stephanie, Basil and their two kids, Madelyn, seven, and Christos, two, will join us for brunch. Then we’ll caravan up to the lake where Stephanie and her kids have already spent the majority of their summer. She’s only come home to take Madelyn to the dentist before school starts in two weeks.
On our way out the door, the house phone rings, but I chose to ignore it. I’m already running late and I’ve promised my mom that we’ll arrive in time for dinner. As I strap Lilly into her car seat, my cell phone starts ringing and I know it’s Pete. I don’t want to talk to him. I can’t confront him in front of the girls and I don’t trust myself not to if I answer.
“Mommy, phone,” Brooklyn points out.
“Who is it?” Lilly asks.
“Probably Daddy,” I admit.
“Answer it. I want to talk!” she insists.
I know that if I don’t he’ll just call again so I pick up and impatiently tell him that I can’t talk right now because we are leaving.
“Where were you last night when I called?”
“Sleeping,” I say, my pulse racing as I try to connect the man I am talking to, to the man in the pictures.
“Are you going to drive straight through or stop at your mom’s?” he asks.
“Of course we’re stopping. Only a guy wouldn’t stop,” I tell him, adding that I can’t talk and drive.
“Let me talk to Brookie then,” he says.
I do so and listen as she giggles and tries to convince him that he should be buying her both presents and candy. After a minute she tells him she loves him and tells Lilly to tell him the same. My eyes fill with tears as I angrily think that I can’t believe he’s done this to us. I tell myself that I knew better than to believe in fairytales and that I never should have listened when others told me they could come true.
Lilly asks him the same thing she asks him every time she talks to him which is, “When I am going to see you?” This time she follows it up with, “Two days is a long time?”
Suddenly two days feels way too soon. I consider driving anywhere but up to the lake. I think of driving to the nearest airport and getting on the first plane we see. I speculate that perhaps we could head down to Austin, Texas where I know Sandra Bullock has settled after her nasty divorce. Maybe she could give me some advice as to how to make my way through this mine field. I’m just about to pick a name for the cute little baby boy I’ll adopt when Lilly hands the phone back to her sister and tells me, “I miss my daddy, Mama.” I choke up, unable to say I do too, as I normally would.
I hear Brooklyn assure Pete she will do something and she hangs up.
“Daddy says to tell you he loves you and you has to call him when we get to Gran and Pops.” she announces.
When I don’t respond she checks to be sure that I heard her.
I nod as we pull out of our exclusive gated community and begin our journey.
The girls remain peaceful for the first hour, but as we start to make our way through the grapevine the whining begins. Brooklyn is too hot and then Lilly complains the air conditioning is too cold. They are both bored and want to know how much longer we have to drive, and of course they want to stop at every fast food place we pass. The grapevine is my least favorite part of the drive. There are so many trucks that have to crawl over it, that all the other drivers zip around them impatiently and it becomes one long, unpredictable obstacle course. The girls’ bickering back and forth makes it just that much worse. As we near the top there is a rest stop, but wanting to get through this, I foolishly don’t stop. Sure enough, as soon as we pass it, Brooklyn says she has to pee.
“We’ll stop at the bottom,” I promise.
“How long?” she asks.
“Not that long.”
“That’s too long,” she cries, just as a motorcyclist with a death wish comes flying between us and the big rig in the next lane.
“I can’t debate this right now. You’re just going to have to wait,” I tell her.
“I has to pee, too,” Lilly assures me.
A few minutes later they are both becoming frantic, and I consider the danger in pulling over on the side of the road. This being the last week of August, and there having been several brushfires in the area recently, there is not so much as a bush to squat behind. I become one of those drivers zipping around others, and all to no avail.
By the time we pull into the parking lot of the Truck Stop of America, they are both crying and as I unstrap Lilly, I can’t help but notice that both she and her seat are wet. Brooklyn starts to run across the parking lot and when I grab her arm to pull her back, she jumps up and down, yelling that she’s going to have an accident. We rush off to the bathroom that is of course housed at the very back of the building so that you are forced to pass by the gift shop, Burger King and Pizza Hut, also held within. When we reach it, there is an entire busload of woman waiting in line. Brooklyn looks up at me in horror as she can no longer hold it and pees on herself. I can’t believe it anymore than she can, but Lilly decides it’s funny and doubles over with laughter. Everyone turns to see what is so funny just as Brooklyn hauls off and hits her with enough force to knock her down. As I tell her that’s not okay, Lilly gets up and chomps down on Brooklyn’s arm. Her shrieks come fast and with ear piercing volume as people look alarmed. I am both humiliated and furious. I can’t believe they are behaving like this and that in less than 24 hours I’ve lost complete control of every aspect of my life.