Three Wives and a Daughter
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.”
“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
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-
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
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
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?”
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
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
“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.
“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.”
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
“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
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.