Sample text for Confessions of a bigamist : a novel / Kate Lehrer.

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Counter "Did I wake you?"

A male voice. I struggled to open my eyes. "Wake me?"

"I did." A guilty male voice.

I tucked my cell phone next to my ear. "I was dreaming . . . something about vines . . . ," I mumbled. "I was at a podium . . . and these vines . . . everywhere . . ."

A laugh. "Go back to sleep. I miss you."

"Me, too," I answered.

"That's all I wanted to hear." He hung up.

I willed myself into consciousness. Someone was missing? No, missing me. But whose voice? A husband's, that's whose.

Suddenly alert, I groped for a bedside lamp and tried to orient myself. Soft light suffused the room's surfaces, which were dense with cream and white and ivory. I saw bare walls and built-in cabinets, a down duvet, the mound of feather pillows that encircled me. A row of mirrored doors reflected the myriad lights that served the city as stars in this last decade of the twentieth century. New York, definitely: Fifth Avenue, upper Nineties, overlooking Central Park. This was the home I shared with my husband Steve--Steve Banyon--for twenty-eight years my only husband, and a fine one. When we married, I was happy to take his name. We were Mr. and Mrs. Banyon. Our friends knew me as Michelle.

Serenity usually reigned within these walls, but now, crumpled pages of my notepad were scattered over the floor, on the bed, on my night table; my pencils, in equal disarray. A half-peeled orange, a soiled white towel, my white silk panties, and two lace gowns lay about in various states of abandon.

I sank back down into the bed and shut my eyes. Who was that on the phone? A husband. Someone was missing me. Me, too, I'd said, for I was missing me. Not so long ago, I had rowed merrily along in the shallows of my life. Innocent. Oblivious. Now I was groping wildly in rough waters, and the boat was definitely in danger of tipping. If only I'd been good at reading signs.

The first sign might have been eight months earlier, when I was running late. I liked to think I was a punctual person and I did hate being late, but Steve hated my lateness even more. He never was. He usually erred on the side of early. This night I was meeting him for dinner with friends. I was even looking forward to it, but I got sidelined by an unexpected call at the office.

Professionally, I was called Daisy Strait, a name I'd invented. Until I did it, I never thought I'd take a pseudonym, professionally or otherwise, though it immediately felt right. As Daisy, I wrote a monthly column for a dusty but sincere women's magazine and hopscotched around the country, lecturing the frazzled and hopeful about how to take the clutter out of life. Sometimes my fans called the office directly for advice, and most days I enjoyed the one-on-one.

"How late am I?" I asked Beth, my executive assistant, who held out my black mink-lined raincoat.

"Well--" she began softly, and I didn't even give her time to finish, just tossed a good-bye over my shoulder, chose the two flights of steps over the notoriously slow elevator, and rushed out of my Soho office building into the already-dark evening.


At least I was lucky there.

While people hunched their shoulders against the chill outside and stepped over and around piles of smudged snow, I hung on as my cabdriver lurched through traffic, jockeying for position. I took off my black-framed glasses and tucked them away in a case. I undid the clasp that kept my hair pulled back neatly at work, brushed out my chin-length, almost natural blond bob, and pulled down my long bangs. I was proud of my smooth mane. It took an hour every morning to achieve it. I opened my compact, grabbed a tissue, and rubbed away what was left of the dark red lipstick I wore at the office, then applied a more subdued mocha. I pressed my lips together. Voila! Michelle Banyon--forty-seven years old, the fairly reserved, fairly chic wife of a fifty-year-old international lawyer, en route to dinner at Jean-Georges, where the waiting list for reservations was three weeks long. Everyone would be finishing their drinks by now and restless to order. I took one last look, snapped the compact shut, and, as the cab pulled in front of the restaurant, burrowed deep into the fur of my coat to prepare for the cold blast of February air when I opened the door.

"We're glad you decided to come," Steve said, his drollness trumping my apology as he jumped up to pull my chair out for me. More a pouncer than a pacer, my husband was always alert, anticipatory, focused--qualities that made him an excellent and well-rewarded lawyer.

"I made the mistake of taking one last call," I explained quickly, sliding in between Matt Rogers and Buzzy Simpson, "and this woman was in hysterics. I couldn't cut her off. I'm sorry." I nodded toward the others, who murmured sympathetically.

Steve said nothing. He was leaving the next day for an eight-week stint in Hong Kong, and this was supposed to be his celebratory bon voyage.

"I'm sorry," I repeated.

"Steve, order Michelle a drink," Merin Gamble said, diplomatically. "While you, sweetie, catch your breath." She leaned across Matt Rogers to pat my hand. Merin was used to getting her way. Her swan neck and dark hair gathered in a French twist gave her an exotic air of distinction. Noisy conversation and swift waiters in their black suits swirled around us. I quieted my heart and took in the warmth of the room.

Buzzy Simpson turned to me. "Bad day?" he asked.

"Just a little dicey at the last minute," I answered, then asked about Roberta, his wife. I had hoped she would be here.

"She's in Florida--sweet-talking a new client who has too much money to be ignored," he complained. "But the kids and I are going down tomorrow to see her over Presidents' Day weekend."

"Mmm, sunshine and sailing--sounds heavenly," I said, knowing he'd take his boat out as soon as possible. We all teased him about his perpetual tan. I was going away for the long weekend, too, and like Steve's, my trip was work-related. I wondered if it would be warm in Texas and whether I'd even have time between seminars to see the sky.

Across the table, Merin said something to my husband, causing him to smile. His thin lips parted wide and the corners of his blue eyes crinkled. He looked to be enjoying himself. I hoped so. He was excited about the trip to Asia and I would miss him. I should have left work earlier.

"Steve Banyon, you are amazing," Merin said, raising her glass. "You gallop around the world and still manage to look like a young stud." She winked at me. "You're an inspiration to us all."

"Maybe it's all that gadding about that keeps him trim," said Merin's husband, Jack. "Maybe I should travel more," he added, patting his own round belly.

"Don't you dare," said Merin. "I need you right here." Which was true, since Jack, who was creative director at one of the hottest advertising companies in town, had helped to put Merin's new line of handbags at the epicenter of the fashion map.

"It can be grim sometimes," Steve said, not looking as if he thought his global lifestyle grim at all. With his lean, patrician looks and his seemingly attentive demeanor, Steve was often an inspiration to men and women, in one way or another. It was easy to become addicted to his practiced attentions. I was once, until I understood how Steve's mind worked: Behind those deep blue eyes, he was keeping another part of his brain clear for the dozens of balls he had in the air at any given moment. Over time this ability became disconcerting. There's something about sharing attention with a law brief even if you can't prove you've been shortchanged.

I scanned the menu quickly. Since everyone had been waiting for me, they all knew what they wanted to order, and a slim-hipped waiter stood by expectantly. "I'm having the duck," Merin announced.

"It's between the Rolled Filets of Sole la Nage and the Veal Tajine," I said, stalling.

"Decide," Steve said firmly. He hated indecisiveness more than tardiness. Even shades of gray were categorized by him as either black or white. For Steve, happiness was a world of absolutes, a sentiment that appealed to me in the beginning. I, too, hated life's ambiguities and believed for a long time that he might stave them off.

I looked at the waiter. One of his nostrils seemed to move of its own accord. "What do you suggest?" I asked.

"The sole, the veal, both are excellent," the waiter responded with polite indifference.

"Go for the sole," said Merin, encouragingly.

"The sole, then," I said, nodding, then turned to listen to the others talk. Over the years, I had come to view my role as the provider of punctuation marks in our friends' conversations. Not the periods or exclamation points, mind you; more the commas, hyphens, and ellipses, maybe a semicolon, and frequently a question mark. As an organizing consultant, I facilitated daily living; as Michelle, I facilitated conversations. Even as a girl, I liked the idea of keeping parts of myself to myself, revealing a little here to one friend, a little there to another, and not too much to anyone.

Mostly, I tended to follow other people's scripts, another habit I developed growing up. Right now, for instance, Matt Rogers, on my left, was telling me about fishing and skiing in Utah. He spoke enthusiastically about what an excellent manager of houses his wife, Cissy, was and how I might pick up a few tips from her. At the moment, she was in Provo, overseeing the redecoration of their lodge. For one brief ego-driven moment, I wanted to remind him that I was the management expert and that his wife had picked up some tips from me, but I tended to play down my professional life, so who could blame him?

"Do you know, she keeps a database with all kinds of information?" Matt said proudly. "Take dinner parties. When we get home she records the evening's seating chart, the guest list, the cost of the food and wine . . ."

"Have you ever noticed," I heard Steve say, "how everyone who's gone to Harvard Law manages to work it in to the very first line they say about themselves?" I heard Jack's appreciative roar and Merin's bell-like twitter join the music from the speakers not far above our heads. Buzzy, who was applying to middle schools for his son, was weighing the merits of Dalton over Collegiate, while Matt, his beefy round face flushed from the wine, went on about Cissy's party planning, how she determined how much to spend and who to invite, and I nodded and added my "Oh"s and "Really?"s and meanwhile recognized the notes of Haydn's String Quartet in E-flat Major--op. 33, no. 2--threading its way through the conversation. "My center won't hold," the woman on the phone had said to me.

"Matt," I managed to interject, "do you feel you have a center?"

"Well, I am the center," he said, surprised, thinking I was referring to his investment banking company. "Others run the day-to-day stuff. I'm not much for details."

"I am," I asserted.

He shrugged. "We all do what we have to."

I thought about my center, whether it was like a room to walk into and how one could possibly hold it, and then I lost myself in the hum of voices, the glowing candles, and pale yellow wine, while the music, like a trick birthday candle you think you've blown out, ended and ended again until the final unresolved chord.

On an early plane the next day to Fort Worth, Texas, I began anticipating with pleasure my lecture to a convention of alumnae delegates from Phi Delta Kappa. I thrived on my work. As Daisy Strait, I was quite the ham. By late morning, I was standing in full Daisy makeup--bronze foundation, darkly drawn eyebrows, red lipstick--before my audience of 150 women. They noted my slicked-back, utilitarian hair, my wrinkle-proof khaki suit, my honest face and warm expression, and the black-framed glasses that lent me substance. Receptive, the sorority sisters settled in.

Engaged and enthusiastic, my voice began its kneading: "Today we focus on your life as it can be with proper care and feeding. You say you have no extra time for one more thing in your life? Even if that one more thing is you? In that case, rule number one is this: Stop letting people, chores, or events wreak havoc with your destiny."

The women nodded, and I was pleased. They wanted to be cared for; they wanted to be fed. And they looked to Daisy Strait for the wherewithal, which was always, without fail, my favorite moment. Flaring to command the stage, I paused before offering deliverance through planning.

"Are you burdened by paper clutter? The piles of mail that never seem to disappear? Rule number two: Don't open anything that doesn't look relevant--and dispose of the rest promptly. The same with people clutter," I said sternly.

A groan went up. I nodded sympathetically.

"Rule number three: Think of people in the same way you do your papers." I could feel the women recoil slightly. "Are my methods ruthless? A little," I said, and then I whispered, "but act nice and you'll get away with it."

I winked. The women laughed, not because it was funny, but because they liked me, they liked being told what to do. I urged them to banish guilt as a waste of energy. "If you don't feel right without it, save it for when you fail yourself." Looking out at the sea of well-turned-out faces, I saw the weariness and struggle that wavered underneath their public masks. I reiterated: "Get ruthless, act nice, and stamp out guilt." In this last part I clowned around--a hand-chop to my throat, a broad smile, and a stamp of my foot at all the obvious places.

As Michelle, I could never perform in front of strangers, charming them with a willingness to make a fool of myself. In my home life, I was much too prissy, too self-conscious, and too private for any of this. As Daisy, though, I was confident. Reinventing myself was like an insurance policy, a fallback position to count on. If I failed at being Michelle, then maybe I could succeed as Daisy. People cared about Daisy.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Triangles (Interpersonal relations) Fiction, Voluntary simplicity movement Fiction, Traffic accident victims Fiction, Identity (Psychology) Fiction, Environmentalists Fiction, New York (N, Y, ) Fiction, Businesswomen Fiction, Deception Fiction, Texas Fiction