Excerpts for Comfort of Lies


The Comfort of Lies

CHAPTER 2

Juliette


Juliette usually listened to music while she worked, but not today. She was stealing from Sunday family time--and a sunny Sunday at that--while the boys watched a video downstairs. Silence ensured she could hear her sons.

Guilt kept her company, even though she and Nathan had devoted every second of the morning and early afternoon to the boys. They'd taken a short hike at Beaver Brook Reservation, and then eaten a picnic lunch prepared by Juliette, complete with the Rice Krispies Treats she'd stirred up at six that morning, and then played an hour of goofy softball. Afterward, Nathan left for an afternoon of correcting papers, and she snuck up to get in a few hours of paperwork.

It wasn't as though they weren't having togetherness; tomorrow night they'd drive into Boston and watch the fireworks. Still, she worried. Bright light poured in the windows, and her boys were in the living room staring at the television.

Terrific. Juliette hoped her kids appreciated all the unlined women on the street, knowing that their mother had traded their brains, health, and security for furrow serums.

Furrow serums.

Wrinkle serums.

Furrow.

Wrinkle.

Furrow.

Wrinkle.

Furrow had tested better as a problem to be solved than wrinkle. Maybe furrow sounded like a woman crinkling from thoughts rather than age.

Perhaps they should call it crinkle serum. Crinkle sounded kind of happy, right?

Sure. She pictured her business partner Gwynne hooting when Juliette shared that the next time they had one of their creative meetings. Juliette and Gwynne had met in Mommy and Me swim classes, drawn to each other through a shared mutual head-exploding boredom with the minutiae of motherhood, coupled with tendencies to overworship their children. They'd fallen in love with one sardonic glance, the way that best friends sometimes do, recognizing a kinship of lonely childhoods.

Juliette listened for disaster. When she worked, she worried about Max and Lucas. When she devoted herself to them, she worried about business. Nathan tried to solve the problem by telling her to r-e-l-a-x. "Concentrate on where you are," he'd say, as though she could will herself out of worrying. Perhaps a male genetic pattern similar to male pattern baldness allowed Nathan to go to work and be at work. He couldn't imagine life any other way.

She knew Nathan wanted to help. He tried to solve every problem that came his way; he always had. Taking care of people pleased him, so much so that she sensed it disappointed him that she asked for so little when it came to her work, but how could he help with a business built on balm for women's skin? Nathan taught sociology at Brandeis University and researched the plight of the elderly, which, in his mind, she was certain, did not include their crinkles or furrows.

This was the year that her balancing act would pay off. She just knew it. Years of investing every free moment in work--even as shepretended her preoccupation with cosmetics and skin care barely broke from being a hobby; concocting potions until three in the morning and then making breakfast for everyone at seven--would be worth it.

The kids came first. Nathan's schedule, second. Then came cooking, cleaning, birthdays, Halloween, Passover, Chanukah, and Christmas--anchoring her family. That's how she thought of it. Juliette loved her work to an unholy degree, but she worked equally hard to hide her obsession, always a bit ashamed of how much passion she felt about her business.

Creating organic skincare and makeup couldn't be compared with saving lives. juliette&gwynne was even potentially an unkind business, building on women's fear, though she and Gwynne kept it clean and honest. No promises of unborn-sperm-cell-laden cream guaranteed to eliminate wrinkles or furrows were offered, just assurances that their products would make the best of what nature had given. They didn't tout faces frozen in time, but faces and bodies smoothed gracefully. Nothing depressed Juliette more than seeing older women with wind-tunneled faces wearing the Juicy Couture label emblazoned on their behinds.

juliette&gwynne had a place in the world, she and Gwynne assured each other, even writing lists of the ways they helped women:

• Bought shea butter (only grade-A) from women's collective in Ghana.

• Packaging made by a women's collective in Appalachia.

• Donated products to a battered women's shelter.

Gwynne took an extra long pull from her beer last week, when they'd added that last one, and then said, "Are we really comforting ourselves with this? Providing moisturizer and lipstick to battered women? Jesus, Jules, wouldn't they rather have a check?"

"I know, I know." Juliette had leaned back in the cracked leather chair donated from Gwynne's husband's law office. Two rooms in Juliette's falling-apart Waltham house served as the offices forjuliette&gwynne//flush de la beaut. "When we make a ton of money, we'll give a ton away."

Maybe someday they'd be rich. She never told anyone, not even Nathan, how she hungered for money. It made her seem like her mother. God save her, Juliette loved things. Well-cut clothes. Thin china. Fat comforters.

All this and healthy, happy children.

First, always first, please, healthy, happy children.

In reaction against her own childhood, Juliette guarded against showing pride. Her mother's devotion to the sheen of one's skin and the drape of one's clothes had resulted in Juliette's impersonating a woman without narcissism. In truth, it was the opposite. Juliette lacked her mother's self-confidence, and a shameful amount of her mind was preoccupied with her appearance.

At least, in the case of juliette&gwynne, her secret vice had value. The business was borne of Juliette's vanity. After giving up her Looks column at Boston magazine to stay home with Lucas, and then Max, her addiction to high-end products became impossible to sustain. Nathan's professor's salary covered only the basics. She experimented at home, mixing moisturizers from ingredients ranging from frankincense to chamomile, and inventing body scrubs made from sugar, oats, and even coffee grounds.

"Mommy!" Five-year-old Max flew in and leapt on the battered sofa, dislodging papers and product samples. "I'm hungry!" He nestled close to Juliette.

Lucas appeared at the door. "I told you to stay in the playroom." He grabbed his brother by the shirt collar. "Come on. I'll get you a granola bar."

Babysitting money fueled her older son's enthusiasm, but his attention to the job impressed Juliette, even as she feared that in his zeal he might detach Max's head from his body. She uncurled Lucas's fingers from Max's shirt and smiled. "It's okay. Let's all go downstairs. Daddy will be home soon. You guys can draw in the dining room while I make supper."

Juliette took out the chopped onions, sliced mushrooms, and diced carrots and cauliflower she'd prepared at seven that morning while Nathan and the kids slept, in anticipation of making mushroom barley soup for dinner. With chicken. Now she took out the plastic containers and lined them up in the order in which she'd saut them before she added chicken stock.

She cut up chicken breasts, leaving on just enough skin to add depth to the soup without overwhelming Nathan's heart.

He'd had her heart from the first moment they'd met, when Nathan moved from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, where Juliette grew up. He'd come for his first teaching job, working in the sociology department at Bard College. Her father headed the Political Science department.

They'd met at her parents' annual holiday party at their house in Rhinebeck, a Hudson Valley town that attracted former New Yorkers. Musky men's cologne vied with the heavy scents of Chanel and Joy. The women either sparkled or were romantic in dusty velvet. Their men wore suits or reindeer sweaters. Juliette stood out in her midthigh-length sapphire dress.

Nathan walked up to her as she stood drinking eggnog and watching her mother work the room. His tie, which from afar looked like blended tones of blue, had Stars of David woven into the cloth.

She reached out and traced one. "Pronouncement?"

"Chanukah gift from my parents."

"Are they marking you?"

"I'm too far from Brooklyn: they're warding off shiksas bearing tiny gold crucifixes."

Juliette touched the empty hollow of her throat in some odd reflex. "Lucky me. I'm only half. Shiksa, that is."

He swept his arm toward her parents' light-crusted tree, so tall that it brushed the ceiling. Garlands laced with red ribbons and crystal snowflakes were intertwined with evergreen on the staircase, visible from where they stood. He touched a soft blonde wave framing her face. "Where in God's name does your family hide the other half?"

Juliette took his hand. "Come. I'll show you."

She took his hand and led him to the quiet library, mercifully free of glitter.

"See?" She pointed to the library mantel where a cobalt glass menorah sat between matching dreidels.

"I don't imagine you ever played with those."

Juliette placed a careful finger on the glass. "No."

She'd rarely played with anything outside her room as a child. Her parents' home, cared for as though it were a sacred object, was her rival for her parents' affection, and to Juliette it usually seemed as though the house won. Juliette's parents seemed to think the house represented them more than their daughter. Why else would she get only benign neglect, while every corner of the house received unremitting attention?

"Do you live here with your parents?" he asked.

"Not since I came home on college vacations."

"You don't like Rhinebeck?" he asked.

"There's not much here, unless you're involved with Bard." His hair was thick and straight. Hollywood black.

She slept with him that night.

"You're besotted," her mother said the next day when Juliette returned from Nathan's apartment.

Besotted. Her mother had found the perfect word. The night with Nathan had been explosive before slowing to billowing softness. She'd been struck and so had he, the two of them barely able to separate that afternoon. The moment Nathan dropped her off, she'd wanted to be back with him.

Juliette smoothed her rumpled party dress. "You're right."

Her mother removed lint from Juliette's hem. "Don't let him see that--not now. It gives them too much power when they see how much you care."

Juliette thought how sad those words were as she poured olive oil in the pan. How could you hide your love? Did her mother still do that, even as she closed in on forty years married? Her parents were knotted to a degree Juliette envied and hated, but she refused to believe it was built on tricks. Her father and mother loved each other so completely and unreservedly--except for Dad loving a bit more, just as Mom wanted--that Juliette never had a chance. Growing up, their marriage had seemed a two plus one to her, with Juliette the plus to their tight couple. All her life, she'd danced on the outskirts of her parents' love.

• • •

Oil sizzled. She threw in the onions. Nathan walked in. Juliette grinned wide, as she did each time he appeared. She still loved him to distraction. Maybe even more. Having children together struck her as the sexiest possible thing you could do with another person.

They kissed. He touched her back with a light hand. His fingers rested on her shoulders in a way that years of marriage told her bore no good. Something troubled him.

"Where are the boys?" he asked.

"Arts and crafts in the dining room." She threw in the garlic and mushrooms when the onions reached peak translucency. "I think I heard Lucas sneak on the TV, but I'm being a bad mother and not noticing until I finish making supper. Now that you're home, feel free to go in and chastise him."

After wiping her hands on the towel tucked in her waistband, she turned and hugged him. The rigidity of his muscles under her hands frightened her.

"What's wrong?" She pushed him away, so she could look at his face. His eyes held emotions she couldn't read, except for the fear. "Your parents? Is your father okay?" Had his father suffered another heart attack? Worse?

Nathan shook his head.

"Work? Did something happen?"

"No." Nathan took a deep breath.

"What then? You look awful. Are you sick?"

He went to the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of brandy. Nathan, never the type to drink when he got home, poured a double shot.

Juliette put down her long wooden spoon. Her parents? Her father? Had her mother called Nathan so that he could break someawful news to Juliette? Bubbles of dread flipped around her stomach. He dropped into a kitchen chair. She sat facing him, so close their knees touched.

When she took his hands, they were cold. She lifted one to her cheek and ran it over her warm skin. "Honey, what's wrong?"

He lowered his face, his hands covering hers. His shoulders shook as he began to cry. Everything inside Juliette froze.

"Tell me."

"I had an affair, Jules. Oh my God, I'm so sorry."

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