Three Wives and a Daughter
Susan Land


Martin broods with a third cup of coffee, watching Laura, who stands at

the counter and measures out a quarter cup of raisins for her oatmeal. Laura

is Martin’s second wife. His first wife, by far the more calculating, never let

Martin see her measure a goddamn thing.


Laura sits down across from him and carefully pushes aside a corner

of the business section to make room for her bowl. She says something

about their daughter keeping tabs on their son via Facebook and she adds,

deliberately, “I know you miss him.”


Martin snaps, “I’m fine.”


Martin isn’t fine. He’s received terrible news about his first wife. He’s

still waking up in the morning to the grief—though it no longer seems

amorphous and omnipresent; after a month, the sadness has taken on a

distinctive weight, like those heavy straps people velcro around their wrists

and ankles, hoping to build strength. But Martin has no such hope. The

weights just make his coffee mug harder to lift, his feet harder to move.

Only when he scrubs before surgery do the weights come off. Or at least he

doesn’t notice them for a while, distracted by blood/muscles/organs, and his

own warm, moist breath in the mask.


“I’m fine,” he repeats. “Just tired. Your snoring kept me up.” He sees

Laura trying not to appear shaken by this attack. He recognizes the way

she scratches her eyebrow. It’s a gesture she makes when she’s driving on an

unfamiliar highway at night and has to merge or change lanes and doesn’t

want him to know she’s afraid.


“Why didn’t you wake me?” she asks, reasonably. “I would have slept in

one of the kids’ rooms.”


He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t know why he doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even

know why he accused her of snoring. Her snoring is light and infrequent

and isn’t what keeps him from sleeping.


She gets up and climbs onto a chair to water the plant on top of the

cookbook shelf. The plant, an aloe, sits in a planter shaped like an elephant.

Laura’s stance showcases her long legs in her worn jeans. Her hair is still

longish and her back is still narrow and Martin still loves her, even loves

her dignity in the face of his nasty funk. She keeps the aloe in the kitchen

for burns. He wonders if it’s a sign that she’s been metaphorically burned,

though he has yet to cheat on her, and he doesn’t even particularly desire the

colleague’s wife who is threatening to unvelcro his grief and get him naked.

Quite possibly that very afternoon. Mrs. Segal is on his calendar, yet again.

So far Laura hasn’t demanded an explanation for the ways Martin’s been

hurting her, and he doubts she complains to their children. Their daughter

is busy double-majoring at Dartmouth and their son, God knows, has

issues of his own. Maybe Laura confides in her fellow amateur musicians.

Probably she doesn’t. Laura doesn’t know he was married before, not really

married. He’s let her assume his first marriage was a business exchange: His

first wife got a green card. Laura, exquisitely tactful, acutely conscious of her

own family’s privilege and Martin’s family’s comparative lack thereof, never

asked what Martin received in exchange.


And she doesn’t know about the call informing him of the death. That

one month ago the phone rang in his office at the end of the day. When he

asks himself why he didn’t just let the receptionist take a message, he has

no idea. By now, even that, the having no idea, seems significant in a way;

everything bad from the phone call on, even eight consecutive days of April

rain, seems significant.


The caller identified herself as an attorney with an accounting firm he’d

never heard of, and his first fear was of a bullshit malpractice shakedown.

She said, “Sit down, please. I have tragic news.”


Martin’s mind went blank and the rest of him went numb. He could

summon up from his brain neither hospital nor airline nor police station

that would have hired an accounting firm to tell him the worst thing possible:

Your son, your son and daughter, your wife and daughter and/or



“June Monzac died three days ago. I’m sorry for your loss.” Martin closed

his eyes in relief, leaving his gut sucker-punch-open to the almighty fist of

guilt. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“What happened?”

“A heart attack.”

A spasm in the heart. “Why are you calling me? We haven’t been in

touch for thirty years.”

The lawyer missed a beat. “Well, you were to be notified as soon as

possible regarding the house and acreage you two owned in common. Thirty



While she went over the status of the deed and the date for probate, an

infusion of sorrow invaded his cells like a retrovirus occupying DNA. Then

he heard, “Ms. Monzac’s daughter, Maggie Monzac, is listed as her mother’s

only beneficiary. She’s twenty-three years old. Graduated from Guilford

College last year. Took off for Nepal. As far as I know she’s back there. All

I have is an e-mail. You’re going to have to reach an agreement with her

before going forward on the property.”


Martin confirmed his own address and agreed to review the forms he’d

be receiving and to call back with any questions.


Martin’s questions have all been about June’s life, not her estate. Martin

spends hours friending her Facebook friends and discovers nothing that

soothes his regrets. He learns that after their divorce, she married an artist,

much older than she. He died when their daughter was fifteen. With her

third husband, also older, now also dead, June had moved to St. Augustine.

He was Korean, as was June. She’d opened a tutoring business and gotten

into SAT prep. Made friends with Cubans. Become an active Republican.

Gotten very tanned. Lost any obvious vestige of her Woodstock days.

Martin has been mourning but has sought no counseling. Takes no

meds. Surgeons have to be cleaner than clean. But he begins to pocket the

occasional sample pack of Vicodin for no particular reason. His first ethical


His second is Mrs. Segal, later on the morning of the aloe watering.

She is attractive and beguiling and has demanded three consultations in as

many weeks. These appointments are unnecessary and unprofitable. Martin

should be brisk, should greet her in the examining room for appointment

number three with a barely polite, “What’s up?”


Instead he says, “Welcome,” and she sits up straight and holds the paper

gown in front of her as if it’s a gauzy shawl and she’s just stepped out of a

limo. She purrs, “Henry tells me you’ve got million-dollar hands.”

Henry being her husband and the chief of pathology, two flights up the

elevator and to the left.


Martin hears his voice wobble. “Have you noticed any changes since

you were last here, Mrs. Segal?”

“I’m afraid to touch them.”

“My physician’s assistant can give you instructions on self-exams.”

“Why don’t you instruct me?”

This is silly and he knows it, though her fear is not baseless. Her sister

is going through chemo. They are completely different kinds of women, but

they both lost the same mother much too young.


The hotel, the amenities, the little lies are shabbier than those in the

movies, but her flair for costumes and playacting is diverting for half a

dozen Tuesdays. And no longer. The end of the affair with Mrs. Segal is

built into the beginning; she wants him to magically protect her from the

disease that got her mother and her sister. Given the essential cruelty of her

genetic history, no matter how she directs him, he ultimately has to play the

bad guy.


Meanwhile an unacknowledged elephant crawls into the bed Martin

continues to share with his wife, a trunk draped over Laura, where Martin

used to rest his arm. But when he comes home after his last round of

playing extracurricular doctor with Mrs. Segal, he knows he has to make

some changes, go to the old Woodstock house, decide whether he wants to

buy it outright as an investment or unload it, and stop putting off getting

in touch with June’s daughter. Not to mention dealing with his own outthere-

somewhere son.


Laura is wearing her board-meeting suit when he walks in the door,

earlier than usual. She’s practicing the cello by the kitchen window, playing

major scales and relative minors as the sun goes down. She hasn’t turned on

the lights, not even the little one that lights only a piece of counter space.

He closes his eyes, imagining a scene from the planter’s point of view, as if

the elephant could look down from the high shelf and watch Martin extract

Laura from the cello and seduce her on the countertop, which isn’t granite

but something more eco-friendly and sustainable. Like their marriage used

to seem.

Martin snaps to and announces that he’s going to go up to Woodstock.

“Tomorrow. I’m calling in sick.”

Laura just nods, not asking to come along, not even asking why the hell

he wants to go to Woodstock, and finally he sees what he’s done to her, to

them. Now he believes that she knows everything, and also that she has the

power to make everything all right. He sputters, running on fumes, “Want

to practice our two-step?”


No answer. Not even a smile. She puts away her cello, letting Martin’s

clumsy attempt at affection echo in the resonance of her scales. He doesn’t

yet know that he will milk the hurt of that moment for years to come,

nurture his humiliation, wish he’d smashed the elephant on the floor.

By nine o’clock the next morning, he’s brought out the recycling and

stuffed his ill-gotten pharmaceuticals into the glove compartment of the

BMW. He’ll be over the Delaware River by noon and hit New Jersey before

the afternoon commuter rush. Six hours on the road will clear out his head,

he tells himself, buzzing along on a hyper sleep-deprived high. Four hours

out, he tries to soothe his tired eyes on the lush trees and big sky of the

Taconic Parkway. On the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, he looks out over

the Hudson and thinks maybe he really does feel better, or at least will feel



But a rush of melancholy ambushes him in Woodstock proper, which

has gone yuppie mainstream, complete with an all-natural toy store and a

bakery for dogs. Of course, he should have expected as much—him with

his custom-made orthopedic Birkenstocks. Probably even back in the

early eighties, the head shop owners and tie-dyed tycoons catered more to

middle-aged tourists in search of New Age podiatrists than to lost souls too

young for the real Woodstock.

By the time I got to Woodstock—

Which wasn’t even really in Woodstock, but at a farm in Bethel, fortythree

miles away.


After three blocks of Age of Aquarius commerce and a couple of miles

of woods he pulls into an unpaved parking lot in front of a diner. This place,

at least, hasn’t changed—still mostly guys who drive pick-up trucks and

white-haired retirees, everyone in jeans. He goes to the counter and orders

coffee and pecan pie with whipped cream. He expects the waitress, who has

a kind smile that seems to clash with her heavily penciled eyebrows, to pass

nutritional judgment on his breakfast choice. When she doesn’t, he asks,

“Anyone ever ask for a grilled cheese sandwich without the cheese?”

She shrugs.

He says, “It’s from a great movie. Five Easy Pieces. Ever hear of it?”


Why should she be drawn in? She has no reason to consider that she

might need him to operate on her someday. But he wants her kind smile. Or

a sincere sneer. Anything but a barely civil: “Anything else I can get you?”

He tells her that thirty years ago he met and married a waitress at this

exact same diner. “She got pregnant and had an abortion. I took care of her.

I made her soup.” Now the waitress clearly thinks Martin is a creep, but he

can’t stop himself. “I sat in this very seat at this very counter.”

She turns her back on him. She isn’t wearing an apron. No white bow

over her tight jeans.


June wore a white apron with pockets in front for change. He fell in

love with her Little Bo-Geisha-ness. She was the only Asian in the bar, only

then the term was Oriental. Now he wants to hurl his coffee cup. He wants

to throw a sugar jar against the glass tower showcasing desserts. He calls

out, “I had a spiritual experience right here!” This isn’t even true.

He throws a twenty on the counter and gets out of there before he’s

kicked out or punched in the mouth or lynched. He realizes this trip is an

awful idea. He should be with his wife in their bed, wishing she liked

sex first thing in the morning but happy enough to wait until the early

afternoon, to read the paper, deal with the lawn, watch sports.

He tries to avoid the faces watching his exit. The old people and the

truckers and the unemployed have bonded in embarrassment for the

crazy guy in the L.L. Bean jacket and hippie shoes. They are thinking

he is in trouble, and sensing their compassion he wants to embrace

them, all of them, to put his fingers in the fine whiteness of their hair

and smooth out their wrinkles.


But, sadly, he must leave them, as if leaving a family behind in

the old country, and he gets into his car and heads off for the New

World, aware that, like his son, he is not quite right in the executive

functioning department. He throws his stash of stolen medicines out

the car window as soon as he’s on the road and there is no one in his

rearview mirror and no one approaching in the opposite lane. Then, too

late to turn around, he worries about deer or beavers finding the pills

and OD-ing, a scandal, an investigation.


This, he will remember, is what he was worried about as he finally

approached the house, by foot, along the overgrown driveway. And

that for all he knew the abandoned bungalow was infested by rats or

inhabited by redneck squatters with rifles, or addicts. And that his feet

hurt, custom orthotic inserts notwithstanding.


Then he sees her. Asian—arms up, back arched—doing yoga on

the beat-up porch. She wears sweatpants and a black leotard. She has

an inefficient ponytail. She folds her body forward, bends her right leg

and lunges back on her left. Still lunging, she puts her palms together

and raises her arms, and then, at the sight of him, wobbles. June’s

daughter—same face, same shape—but so young and abandoned. He

knows instantly that he will never try to have sex with her. This is a

powerful relief. She shrieks, “Get away!”

He says, “We’ve never met, but—”

“I know who you are!” She is very upset, malpractice-upset. His

presence disturbs her more than seems appropriate, as if he’s the redneck

squatter, addict, rat. She rants: “You have no legitimate moral claim on

this property.”


He’s hurt by her repulsion. In spite of his stupid sandals and his

seedy affair with a doctor’s wife and the inexcusable breakdown in the

diner, he sees himself as a non-threatening middle-aged professional

in dry-cleaned khakis. He sees himself the way June taught him to see

himself, while she prepped him to retake the MCAT and he drilled her

for the citizenship exam.


Now her daughter is accusing him of trespassing. He doesn’t think

he is, but there’s no telling what kind of paranoid fantasy she’ll post on

her Facebook page: Rich out-of-town doctor stalks crunchy twentysomething.

He sputters: “I lived here with your mother when we were

married. I thought you were in Nepal.”


At that lame defense, the yoga girl flinches, as if Martin had poked

something tender while removing a deep stitch. She hisses, “I know

who you are. I don’t want you coming into my house.”

“I don’t need to come in.” He has no desire to enter the house, to

revisit the places he deposited his sperm when June rejected him. “I

won’t even ask to use the facilities.”


His attempt at lightening up the situation triggers a need to piss.

He makes a stab at his put-the-patient-at-ease smile. Then he beats a

path through the bramble until he can’t see anything but branches and

sky, and does his business, washes his hands with an unscented wet

wipe which he refolds and tucks back into the foil. He is an unfaithful

and unstable husband, but not a litterer. Somewhat emboldened by this

insight, he makes his way back to the bungalow. Walks up to the girl.

“Could we start again? Could you let me introduce myself and offer my


She stands on one leg and makes a triangle of the other, knee

outward, foot against inner thigh. She’s more muscular than her mother.

She says, “I’m Maggie.”


“You’re younger than I thought you’d be.”

“Your mother was ten years older than me.”

“So, congratulations. I guess. You’re the last husband standing.”

She sits on the porch steps, brushes off some leaves and dirt and

gestures for Martin to join her. His knees crack. A cat meows at the

sound. Birds wake up and start talking all at once. Maggie laughs.

Martin’s sadness returns full force, pressing down on his upper back

and the tops of his sore feet. He says, “Tell me about your father.”

“You really don’t know? Come on. He was famous around here for

twenty years before she even met him. Woodstock’s greatest portraitist.

I still miss him. Sometimes. I guess. Not so much since Nepal.”

“What did you do in Nepal?”

“Swept floors at an ashram and studied Nepalese for eight-and-ahalf


“How are you living now? I mean it’s none of my business, but—”

“I was staying here when she had the heart attack. She didn’t know

that. She thought I was still at the ashram. I didn’t want her to know

I’d come back. I didn’t want her to tarnish my precious aura with her

questions about men and health insurance. I was so full of my stupid

holy self.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I was gross.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not? I could have had the decency to see her. I might have

saved her life.”

“You’re just torturing yourself.”

“It’s either feel like crap or start cutting again.” She shows him a

narrow ladder of scars running up her tender underarm.

He considers saying, “Cutting is best left to surgeons.” Or “You’ve

healed quite nicely, considering.” Or “The scars will get fainter.” Those

are the sorts of comments he usually makes. But he’s not in his office.

There’s no sensitive nurse by his side. He’s in the woods with his first

wife’s orphaned daughter, who won’t let him into the house and yet isn’t

making him leave. He’s sitting on steps that need stripping and priming

and painting. His cell phone is in his pocket but he has no one to call.

He asks, “What about yoga? Doesn’t that make you feel better?”

“Sorry, but it’s possible to do yoga and still feel like crap. No such

thing as the tooth fairy, either, by the way.”

He wants to shake her. She’s being ridiculous. People forgive

themselves all the time. Doctors. Spouses. Parents. He says, “I forgave

my son for driving doughnuts and disqualifying himself from a chance

to play tennis in the Ivies.”

“What? Doughnuts? What are you talking about?”

“He drove doughnuts.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means he got in his car, in the high school parking lot, at 5:30

p.m., when the conscientious teachers and the principal were all about

to leave for the day, but most of the spaces had cleared out, and then

like some kind of lunatic cat stroking out and chasing his lunatic tail, he

spun my old Audi around and around.”


“Yes. In tight circles, with the steering wheel all the way to the

right, flooring the gas and then slamming on the brakes, over and over.

He left a pattern of skid marks that the guidance counselor said looked

like a ball of black yarn.”

Maggie is laughing.

“It wasn’t funny. I was the president of the tennis team’s parent

committee. I ran meetings and did fundraising when I could have

been—” He looks up at the pine trees.

“You’re funny.”

“Am I?’

“Yeah. I didn’t know that. My mother said she married you for the

U.S. citizenship. She said you married her because you were high all the


“That’s plausible.” Let the girl think it. “She was honest with me,

your mother. She told me about men who could give of themselves and

men who couldn’t.”

“You could?”

He doesn’t know. He’s babbling. He says, “I used to watch these trees

sway when the wind blew, and sometimes I could see every individual

pine needle pulse with life. That was a good high. During the bad highs,

the needles turned into little snakes and your mother would talk me



The birds get hysterical all around and the shadows get longer, and

he talks about the first wife he remembers or imagines remembering—

her telling him how silly Woodstock seemed, about how hard life had

been in Korea. “I helped your mother study for her citizen test, and she

helped me get healthy. She made me Tum Yum soup and raisin toast

with cinnamon sugar.” Actually, it is his second wife who makes the

sweet toast.

“And she got you to buy this place and made you pay half the taxes

year after year for forever, even after you were both married to other


“Yes. I am fully aware of that.” But he says, “I thought meeting her

was a sign from the universe to slow down and pay attention.”

Maggie lifts her head and says, “Maybe it’s a sign that you’re the

person who found me here.” Then she puts her hands together and bows

to something Martin can’t see.

What he can see, suddenly, he sees with surgical clarity: He is

twenty-one years old. He has an interview with the dean of SUNY

Albany Medical School. He’s lost on Route 9. Ends up in a diner.

Locks his wallet and car keys in the car. Is seriously exhausted thanks to

nerves and too much pot. Knows he’s a weak candidate for any medical


She asks, “Do you forgive her for using you?”

He was afraid to tell his parents about fucking up the interview, so

he married a hot waitress. June had a business plan and understood the

attraction of an Asian tutoring franchise. “We used each other.”

When he begged her to keep the baby, she tried to be kind. He

cried in the waiting room. The grief he felt was the most powerful

thing he’d felt in his life until that point. It was what all of the signs

had been pointing to. He and June were bonded forever by the loss, he

believed, and he felt, for the first time, at twenty-three, nostalgic for his

innocence, for his simple lust, his pseudo-rebellion. “Your mother did

what she had to. So did you.”

“You don’t know me.”

“My wife and I danced at the tennis parents’ committee fundraising

party. Everyone knew Adam was off the team and suspended from all

school extracurriculars. Everyone knew how much time my wife and

I had put into the fundraising. Everyone admired us and everyone

sneered at us, because we had the son who was the best tennis player

that school had ever seen, and we hadn’t been humble.”

“You danced? In front of everyone?”

In truth they hadn’t danced, hadn’t so much as shown their faces.

Martin says, “Swing danced, fox-trotted and waltzed.”

Then Maggie jumps up and spins joyful doughnuts in the pine

needles, and Martin watches, feeling like a wise middle-aged professional

dressed in khakis that need to go to the cleaners. That will come back

stainless and creased. She sits back down, puts her hands together and

bows, again, to the black trees and the purple sky. Then she bows to

Martin, who wants to smile his time-for-the-next-patient smile, but

needs to wait, to breathe deeply and stretch his lungs to make room for

her gratitude and for something else opening up inside him that isn’t

sexual or nostalgic or pharmaceutical or in any anatomy textbook he’s

ever seen.


This is what he doesn’t yet know:

That he will arrive home in record time, pumped to tell Laura that

he’s been transformed, that he’s been to Woodstock, that he’s felt the

blessing of the earth and sky and is back and ready to make vacation

plans for wherever she wants to go, wherever on the planet Earth. He’ll

take a month off. Take a second honeymoon with a first-rate wife. It’s

her turn. He’d come home.

It’s her turn, all right. She greets him after his long drive with an

e-reservation in his name at a Marriott near his office. She explains that

he will ask for the divorce, so that their children will blame him. She

promises that if he takes care of her financially, within reason (she has

come into the marriage with money of her own and has held onto it),

she will never reveal his affair. He’ll do the math in his head and decide

it’s better to let her continue to believe that he’s spent the day with an

out-of-state paramour. He even says, “It’s over. She’s left for Nepal. I

was seeing her off.”


He remembers that twice he married smart women. Laura cuts her

losses and then marries the lawyer who talks her through the mediation.

For four lonely years Martin tries to find, again, his Woodstock moment

of gratitude and whatever that rush was, or at least some sort of spiritual

companionship. He joins eHarmony. He says “no” to affairs with sales

reps at meetings where he shills for an artificial skin matrix. He writes a

letter to Maggie and asks her to take him to Nepal, but he never sends

it. He hires his son, who learns construction skills volunteering for

Habitat for Humanity, to fix up the Woodstock place. Martin will never

go back to Woodstock, but he wants to know the house is shipshape

before buying up Maggie’s half and putting the property into her name,

taxes paid for perpetuity.


Then one summer afternoon, while recovering from bypass surgery,

he is walking along a block during an art fair and meets a brown-haired

potter who’s barely thirty and looks younger. Her name is Gillian. She’s a

mix of nationalities and religions. She’s petite but not skinny, flirtatious

but not silly. They tell one another that they see parallels between his

medium and hers, between blood and clay. He worries that the scars at

his surgical sites—the chest, the groin—will scare her. He tells her this

the first time she takes off his clothes. He sees that she is fearless and

that she is about to lose her girlishness and start to look the way she will

look for many decades.


One autumn day he takes her for a drive west, to the mountains. She

wants some big open sky. He watches the windy road and asks her to

marry him, musing to himself, not realizing he’s speaking aloud. When

she says yes, he swerves like a drunken fool, seeing omens everywhere,

and he reaches over to brush his hand against her, not caring where

he touches, not aiming, just reassuring himself that she’s beside him.

Really beside him.


The wedding will be small, on the first floor of a torpedo factory

turned into an art space in Old Town Alexandria; Gillie’s studio is

on the second floor. Martin admires her almost-human pots and is

fascinated by the history of the building, which sits along the Potomac

and was a clinic for soldiers when Union forces occupied Virginia.

Martin’s son asks to bring a date, and the date turns out to be June’s

daughter; they fell in love when Maggie hired him to make other

changes to her house. Now Maggie works for him, as does Martin’s

second wife, Laura. They’re running a non-profit that helps furnish the

homes of the formerly homeless. Adam uses his mother as a sounding

board and is respectful of her ideas, which have gotten more abstract

and less idealistic. Whenever Martin thinks about this, he feels pain at

his surgery sites; he doesn’t understand why.


But Gillie restores him whenever he holds and beholds her. He

marvels that he still thinks things like, “hold and behold.” (Though

sometimes, when he steps back and considers how easy she was to woo,

he has to wonder if her simplicity registers at some adorable point along

the autism spectrum.)


While they take their vows, Martin’s eyes are drawn to a long

green metal torpedo and to the younger versions of his previous wives:

Maggie, of course, and his daughter, who seems to have deliberately

made herself, for the occasion, a clone of her mother. Same hairstyle,

same pale board-meeting suit, same pearls. Fortunately, Martin has

learned a trick or two from his years of meditation. He says “I do” while

wishing for the sun to shine upon them all, for love to surround them,

for the light within them to guide their way. His newest wife seems to

be breathing the same hopeful air, but he can’t be certain. She’s dressed

in a white peasant dress from the ’70s, an antique, she calls it, and she

is glowing, like a pot being fired—forever promising to awe him with

her glaze, with her capacity to contain and embrace, but forever, also,

threatening to shatter. An explosion in a kiln, a spasm in the heart.

Susan Land has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars

and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Her fiction has recently appeared

in Niche, The Potomac Review, Bethesda Magazine, Enhanced Gravity:

Fiction by Washington Area Women and Like Whatever: The Insider’s Guide

to Raising Teens. She also has a story forthcoming in He Said, She Wrote,

an anthology from Big Wonderful Press. Susan teaches at the Bethesda

Writer’s Center and for SpiderSmart.