The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel

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9780307393678: The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel

What if you were married to a wonderful husband for twenty-eight years but in love with another man? What if you were in love with them both?
 
Annabelle McKay knows she shouldn’t have any complaints. She’s been in a stable marriage that’s lasted almost three decades and has provided her with two wonderful children, thousands of family dinners around a sturdy oak table, and a husband so devoted that he schedules lovemaking into his calendar every Wednesday morning. Other wives envy the fact that Grant is not the type of man who would ever cheat on her or leave her for a younger woman. The trouble is Annabelle isn’t sure she wants to be married to Grant anymore. The trouble is she’s still in love with someone else.
 
In the early tumultuous years of her marriage, Annabelle carried on a clandestine affair with the one person whose betrayal would hurt her husband the most. When it ended, she and Grant found their way back together and made a pact that they would never speak of that time again. But now years later, with her children grown and gone, and an ominous distance opening between them, she can’t help but remember those glorious, passionate days and wonder if she chose the right man.
 
Then, when called to New York City to help care for her pregnant daughter, Annabelle bumps into her old lover. Offered a second chance at an unforgettable love, she must decide between the man who possesses her heart and the husband who has stood squarely by her side. A journey into the what-ifs that haunt us all, The Stuff That Never Happened is an intricate, heartfelt examination of modern marriage that brims with truths about the nature of romantic love.

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About the Author:

MADDIE DAWSON lives in Connecticut. She is happily married.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

[one]

2005

I started crying at Crisenti's yesterday, over by the frozen foods. This was not cinematic, attractive weeping either; it was full-frontal, nose-running, eyes-streaming near-blubbering. I had to pull my cart over to the side of the meat case while I searched through the lint in my coat pocket for a tissue.

I could not begin to tell you why this happened now, except to say that it's February in New Hampshire, which if you ask me might be reason enough to break down. It's been six months since Nicky went off to college and Sophie got married, and somehow on an ordinary Monday afternoon at the supermarket, it all caught up with me. I'd made it through Christmas all right, and the first anniversary of my mother's death, and then through the season's first eighteen snowstorms--and suddenly I was crying about all of it: how life is never going to be the same as it was when the children were home, and how Grant has never forgiven me for stuff that happened twenty-six years ago, and how I have somehow gotten to be almost fifty years old and all I have to show for it is a bunch of picture books.

Picture books! That makes them sound dignified, like art perhaps. But I'm talking board books--the kind with animals dressed up like people. Pigs in dresses! An aardvark who wears plaid scarves! I've just finished illustrating a book about a mama squirrel trying to get her babies to go to bed. And you know the weird part, the thing that Grant would never believe? I love this mother squirrel. I love the fact that I painted her wearing a yellow workout suit and that when she was nestled on her little couch reading to her babies, she looked radiantly happy in a very non-rodent way.

Remembering that, I had to put my hand over my mouth so the sobs wouldn't escape.

"Mrs. McKay?" said the boy behind the meat counter. Not a boy--he's a man, really. He was one of Sophie's friends. He had been at our house dozens of times over the years, one of the hordes of young people who were always there playing basketball in the driveway, skating on the pond, eating dinner, even sleeping over. He had the lead in the school play the year Sophie was a sophomore. Brad, that's his name. Brad Simeon.

And because young people should not have to see the older generation falling apart and guess what's in store for themselves, I straightened myself up out of the collapsed-crazy-lady position.

He smiled, wanted to know if I was okay. Perhaps the pork chops weren't to my satisfaction?

I looked down at the package of two thin, gray pork chops I was holding in my hand and actually laughed. Do they see a lot of that in grocery stores--people breaking down in tears of disappointment over the meat products? I said they were just fine, perfectly wonderful, and then he asked how Sophie was getting along, and regaining my footing, I launched automatically into my proud motherly spiel: Oh, she's just fine! Married, yes, and living in New York, and pregnant now, actually. Did he know? Yes, I'm going to be a grandmother. Why, thank you--no, I don't feel old enough to be a grandmother, but in our family, we reproduce young, ha-ha.

And Nicky?

Mother spiel number two: Oh, so happy at the university! Doing winter hiking just now, and yes, still playing hockey--can barely get that boy to open a book, he's so busy with the other things (I don't say we suspect girls, drinking, and drugs) but he'll learn. Just hope he doesn't get kicked out before he figures out he's there to get an education! I gave a good imitation of my whattaya-gonna-do laugh.

Just then, thank goodness, Brad's boss called him back to the ground beef machine, and he shrugged and smiled and slipped back into that little brightly lit, glassed-in room they have for the meat guys. "Tell Professor McKay hello," he said as he left, but by then he was turned the other way, so when my eyes filled up with tears again, he didn't have to see.

So I tell my therapist about it, pork chops and all. (Therapists like to be notified of any public breakdowns, you know.) Ava Reiss is her name. I've been seeing her for just over a year, ever since my mother died, and we sit together once a week examining all the mundane and not-so-mundane incidents of my life, like two ladies sorting through mismatched socks. I am always just about to tell her that I'm not coming anymore, that this isn't really working, but then I keep on.

"You cried in the grocery store?" she says. "And what were you feeling?"

"Well, for starters, it was embarrassing."

"No, I mean why did you start crying then, do you think? What did the pork chops represent?" She is about forty-five and has straight brown hair, and she wears cashmere sweaters and long skirts with tights that always match her sweaters. I think that says something about her personality. You have to be a very conscientious shopper to get sweaters and tights that match, don't you think? Once I told her that it makes me uncomfortable that she won't ever let herself laugh at any of my jokes, and she said that I use humor to deflect real feelings, and I said, "So? What do you suggest I use?" which she didn't appreciate.

"The pork chops . . . the pork chops, I think, represented, ah . . . dinner?" I say, and she purses her lips as though I'm deflecting again, so I explain that dinner is a topic fraught with complicated feelings for me. Dinner, you see, was the time I always loved the best. We were the family in the neighborhood with the house where all the kids congregated. Every community has a house like that; who knows how it happens, how kids discover they can go there and have a social center, and maybe a second home, but they just do. For years that was our place. I felt so privileged, so honored to be there orchestrating it. I loved the noise and the music and even all the complications. We had--actually, we have--a long oak dining room table, scarred and beat-up but beautiful because of those scars, and it was always heaped up with homework and art projects and science labs, costume-making projects, wonderful jumbles of clutter and chaos . . . and I'd be there in the middle of it all, listening to the kids talking and gossiping and teasing each other while I worked on my book illustrations and cooked, and then I'd push everything aside and bring out a pot of chili or big platters of eggplant Parmesan, blue bowls of chicken soup, spaghetti, pots of my spicy beef stew, homemade bread and rolls. There was something bustling and safe about the big kitchen, the light and the noise, the table and the laughter.

I try to explain to her how this--being the neighborhood house--had been new to me, like nothing I'd experienced growing up. I was born and raised in Southern California, in endless acres of a subdivision consisting of stucco four-bedroom houses, all built just yesterday and all with sliding glass doors and swimming pools and kids drag racing down the streets and never congregating anywhere. This whole small-town New Hampshire quaintness was something I thought existed only in the movies. But Grant grew up here, in the very house we now live in, playing hockey, sledding, and skiing, and for him, this is just what normal means: a mom and a dad, two kids, a clapboard house, ice skates hanging in the mudroom, a woodstove, rocking chairs on the porch.

Meant. What normal meant. We are now finished with that phase of normal, and, if he has anything to say about it, I fully expect we are going to turn into his parents any day now. Now we're the older couple who lives in the old McKay house--the farmhouse with the curvy road, the apple orchard, the pond, the barn and the gate that never closes right because the hinge is perpetually and heartrendingly broken, a symbol of all that never will be fixed.

Everything is different now, I say to Ava Reiss. I don't recognize my life anymore. We sit there in the silence of her office, listening to the sleet clicking against the gray windowpane.

"Look, I know what you're thinking," I tell her. "You think I'm just feeling sorry for myself, when that's not it at all. I read the women's magazines. I know that people who are about to turn fifty can do anything they want to do. Apparently women today are supposed to stop menstruating and use all that extra time we no longer need for changing tampons to go and cure cancer or something. Grant says I now have time to do my art, like I should just stop doing children's books and, I don't know, start doing Picassos or something. Like he thinks this is something I've just been waiting to get around to but couldn't because I had to cook dinner every night."

She taps her pen against a pad of paper she has on her lap. "You know, Annabelle, people sometimes use this time to reconnect with their husbands. After all, isn't he actually going through the same experience you are?"

And bingo, there we are: staring right smack at the problem. It's not the stupid pork chops, it's not the stupid book illustrations; it's that I'm lonely. Grant--my so-called partner and fellow survivor of the parenting years--is not going through the same thing at all, or at least you'd never know it. He has taken this time to throw himself into writing a book, and by "throw himself," I mean that he has no time for me or for anything else. He's living and breathing the history of a factory from the turn of the last century. I think if you took an MRI of my husband's brain right now, all you would see would be factory ledgers and chapter headings and pages and pages of footnotes having to do with the wording on picket signs.

I wake in the mornings to hear him already typing away in his study, and then he stays up until the middle of the night reading over his day's work and grimacing while he clears his throat and makes little dissatisfied grunting noises. You'd think it was physically painful for him to read his own sentences.

Even dinner, once the time of connection and togetherness and--okay, I'm trying not to use the word communion here, but I see I have to--even dinner has lost its sense of communion an...

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