Decorated by interior designer Suzanne Tucker, Brett’s new home in Pacific Heights was brimming with finely coordinated furniture and furnishings. It was all so perfectly sumptuous that sitting on the actual furniture seemed a crime.
An original Wayne Thiebaud painting of crooked Lombard Street adorned the one blank wall in the library. Antique French Regency mirrors dotted the grand foyer; it felt even more expansive now than during one of the charity fundraisers Brett hosted as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Asian Art Museum.
Grace gripped the staircase’s polished mahogany banister as Brett led her up to the third floor and the large guest bedroom that, like the master bedroom below it, enjoyed unobstructed and sweeping views of the bay.
“I need to go pick up the kids, so why don’t you just relax? You deserve it. I’ve planned dinner for 6:00.” Brett headed for the guest dressing room. She brought back a turquoise Tory Burch floor-length tunic and Natori silk nightgown and laid them on Grace’s bed. “Your bathroom is stocked with everything you’ll need. I left a few bottles of my new favorite serums from True Nature Botanicals in there for you to try. Seriously, they’re a facelift in a bottle, though not all that much cheaper.”
Departing, Brett blew air kisses, and Grace promptly collapsed sleepily onto the bed. With just one eye open, she surveyed her surroundings. No detail had been overlooked, down to the intricately embroidered velvet drapes with hand-painted striped lining that only an occasional ant would get to see on the window-facing side. A surge of envy reminded Grace she had wanted to redecorate her master suite, but that Peter had repeatedly rejected her designs. Oh, what the hell does he know? His current taste seems to list toward younger, firmer, blonder. Omigod, how could this have happened to me?
Grace slipped under the duvet cover. She pressed her thumbs on the inside corners of her eyes in an attempt to dam the unwanted tears. But she was unsuccessful, as the flood washed over her face. Her existence had straddled between routine and obligation over the past umpteen years, and her happiness had become increasingly defined by purchases of designer-priced clothing.
Grace buried her head in the sheets so no one would hear the sobs, even though she was the only one in the house. She reflected on her marriage, which, to everyone looking in, was the image of perfection, and yet had become hollow to its core.
* * *
“Grace? GRACE?” Peter’s echo alone responded.
Peter closed the front door behind him and dropped his luggage at the bottom of the staircase that led to the second floor. Placing his briefcase next to the Biedermeier foyer console, as he had done every time he came home since they’d bought the house ten years before, he winced at the fact that this was one of his only arrivals lacking Grace’s ready greeting with a highball of forty-year-old cognac. In the Venetian mirror above the console, Peter ran his hands through his dark, wavy hair, trying to undo Sam’s handiwork in the backseat of the taxi. Man, I need a haircut. Although, he would have to admit that the extra inch gave him even more of that Ralph Lauren preppy look indicative of his Exeter days.
“Nick?!” he shouted up the stairs.
His son’s name bounced back at him from the Italian plaster ceiling.
Between the living room and the staircase was a cozy space with walls covered in brown mohair. Here, Peter’s voice fell, muffled, as he crossed to a zinc bar with glass shelves displaying more than two dozen bottles of liquor. At dinner parties, all the husbands congregated here to enjoy aged cognac and Cuban Cohibas. It was fitted with an especially quiet fan, keeping the buildup of smoke off the bar and Grace off his back. Pulling down a crystal bottle of Louis XIII, Peter tipped it to give himself a generous pour—no ice.
“It’s a Small World” played faintly from the family room. Peter was drawn by the melody and wandered in search of it before realizing it was an incoming telephone call.
“No,” the woman’s voice replied. “Guess that means she wasn’t there when you got inside?”
“Sam, why the hell are you calling on my home number? Grace could have answered—or worse, my son! Don’t ever use this number again. This is too crazy.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I just don’t know why Grace showed up at the airport. I’m also not sure why you showed up.”
“I told you, the limo company had a driver mix-up,” she said. “I couldn’t just leave you at the airport with no transportation home.” What Sam failed to mention was that she personally canceled Peter’s limousine.
“There’s this app called Uber. But that’s beside the point. I think Grace thought she saw something that wasn’t anything. You and I both know that, right?” There was no response on the other end of the line. “Look, I’m sorry if you feel I led you on. Our time in New York was just that … one time.”
“Right-o,” said Sam. “I was just trying to do you a favor by picking you up. That was it. The kiss was just my spur-of-the-moment reaction for a great job in closing the Hong Kong deal. Good for you. Go team Meadowcroft.”
“Sure, thanks.” Then what the hell was that little pelvic tilt? An extra thank you?
“Don’t worry about me.” Sam’s voice was one octave higher. “I’m a big girl.”
“Did you leave me a hard copy of my presentation for Monday’s board meeting? I’m going to need to get in and review it sometime over the weekend.”
“It’s on your desk, but I also uploaded it to the cloud if you want to review it at home. I’m happy to come over in case you want any help. But only if you need me.”
“No. I don’t want anyone else to get the wrong idea.”
“Right. Monday, then.” Sam feigned bravado.
The business trip to New York a month earlier had been a fluke. The senior researcher at the firm had come down with food poisoning the night before they were to have flown out to make a major pitch to a large client about a partnership with an Indonesian manufacturer. Sam, the junior researcher on the project, had offered to step in. Her presentation was impressive, in both the ease with which she communicated complex risk data as well as her total command of the attendees’ attention. As she and Peter celebrated that evening on the Upper East Side, somewhere between cocktails at The Sherry-Netherland and dinner next door, the top button on Sam’s crisp white shirt came unlatched. Combined with too many of Harry Cipriani’s congratulatory Bellinis, these chased by Cristal in the corporate suite at The Pierre, Peter forgot his better judgment … and Grace.
In the wake of a land mine hangover, his guilt registered only mild intensity. Sam had satisfied an innate yearning his wife no longer fulfilled. With only a slight stretch of reality, he justified it as something of a favor he was doing for Grace by letting her off the hook, since she had shown absolutely no interest in sex for years.
After their success in New York, Peter campaigned to get Sam promoted to senior research analyst. He lobbied human resources, as well as his boss, Michael Barrett. Michael had been sometimes his friend and sometimes his fierce competitor, ever since they’d graduated together from Harvard Business School. Sam’s new title had been announced the day Peter left for Asia. Chasing the tailwinds of Peter’s Singapore Airlines flight, a tsunami of rumors as to how Sam had earned the promotion flooded the office. By Sam’s day and Peter’s night, the number of emails between the two of them became extensive, and the sexual innuendo became more and more explicit. Had anyone else read those emails, an affair in full bloom could have been their only interpretation. Methodically, Peter permanently deleted each email after cutting, pasting, and downloading any applicable business attachments.
Peter opened the French doors that led from the family room to the side yard to let Daisy, the Meadowcroft’s rescued black pug, indoors. He then pointed the remote control at the television and took a huge swig from his glass of cognac. By the time it scorched its way down his throat, he’d clicked over to the local news, where a breathless reporter stood in front of Pier 70 as agents wearing FBI jackets were marching a dozen young Asian men from a private yacht to waiting unmarked cars. The ticker at the bottom of the screen read Prostitution Ring Busted. Daisy jumped into his lap and wagged her curled tail feverishly as she sniffed the cut crystal highball glass. Peter pushed her away, but she quickly returned, cannonballing into his lap.
“Just another difficult bitch in my life, aren’t you, Daisy?” For a millisecond, Peter succumbed to her affection and scooped up sixteen pounds of doggy love before depositing her unceremoniously back onto the floor. After a quick shake, Daisy looked up with her tail wagging unrelentingly. Peter was passed out.
* * *
Grace woke up from her nap hoping the episode at the airport had been a bad dream. It had not. After taking a quick shower, she headed down to the kitchen, expecting to help Brett make dinner.
“Nope, I’ve been using Postmates’ delivery service most every school night,” said Brett. “Tonight we’re having dinner from Burma Superstar. I hope you like Burmese food. It’s one of my kids’ new favorites.”
Within the first five years of marriage, Brett and Cecil had had three children—Cecil V, Camille, and Oliver. Yet once his father passed away, stores started to close, and Cecil seemed to become increasingly in touch with his feminine side. Becoming a newly minted single mom, Brett moved the kids to Marin County to cut down on expenses. Sadly, she also dropped off the board of what she loved most—the Asian Art Museum.
A couple of months after her divorce, Brett became a real estate agent and did fairly well, yet in just the last two years, her fortunes had seemed to skyrocket. So incredibly that she moved back to the city, bought an even larger home in Pacific Heights, and re-enrolled the kids into private schools. Grace had never questioned how Brett accomplished it, and was never given a reason to believe it was anything other than her being an extremely successful agent, despite San Francisco being one of the most cutthroat real estate markets in the country.
After dinner Brett’s two older children, Cecil V and Camille—both of whom had dark hair like their mother, yet Caucasian features like their father—cleared the dishes from the table and stowed the leftovers in their to-go boxes. Camille piled the brown cartons on Oliver’s lap and gave him a shove from behind. Gripping his cargo, Oliver, whose blonde mop of hair defied his mother’s heritage, squealed with delight as his wheelchair sailed across the kitchen to the Sub-Zero, where he slammed on his brakes. There, Camille met him and offloaded the food. The youngest, Oliver, had cerebral palsy, but he had use of his arms and was able to maneuver his wheelchair like someone far more experienced than his ten years would lead one to assume.
Cecil went up to his room, where he was developing a website for Brett’s real estate firm. Camille headed to the basement to practice her singing, and Oliver wheeled himself to his bedroom to play Garage Band on his iMac. Even though there was an elevator in Brett’s house, Oliver’s bedroom was on the first floor, so he could more easily move around without assistance. Grace and Brett remained at the dining table, and once the kids were out of sight, she brought out another bottle of wine.
“My life is gone. Everything. Over. I don’t know what to do.”
“Look, Gracie, I have a way to help you,” said Brett.
“Thank you, but how can you possibly help?” Grace gulped a larger than normal swig of her Chardonnay.
“There’s this place…” Brett paused long enough to refill their glasses.
“It’s for women who … like you, have made discoveries about their…”
“About their philandering husbands?” asked Grace.
“Ummm … yes, actually. It’s like a spa, but with experts. You know—therapists, doctors, clinicians, all to help you detox.”
“You want me to go to rehab? I’ve had no more wine than you!”
“No, no, no—that’s not what I meant at all! It’s a place to get it together. It’s hard to explain. Suffice it to say, everyone there’s in the same position as you are right now.”
“All their husbands gave the pelvic thrust to a lover right in front of them?”
“You know what I mean. Listen, it’s a quiet place where you can gather your thoughts. Make a strategic plan. You’ll be able to share your feelings with women who truly understand what you’re going through. I can help you somewhat, but you really should … think about it, as a place to heal and move forward. Get back that confidence you lost along the way.”
“You think I have no confidence?”
“We’ve known each other for twenty-five years, Grace. Good times and bad.”
“So where is this place?”
“Up in the Napa Valley, but…” Brett paused to tie her long black hair in a ponytail.
“At least it’s close.”
“Yes, it is. But of all the friends I care about in my life, I want you to go there because you really, really want to. I don’t want you to think I pushed you.”
“So did you go there when you and Cecil split up?”
Brett paused. “I did. I’ve never told anyone before now—it’s a very special secret. But it changed my life. And I wouldn’t be suggesting this path if I didn’t think it could be life-changing for you, too.”
“Huh.” Grace hunched her shoulders. “Thanks, I’ll sleep on it.” Taking the last swill of her wine, Grace pushed her chair away from the table. “What’s the name of this spa, anyway? I’ll go look it up on my phone.”
“No, no, no, no.” Brett shook her head. “It’s very private, no website.”
“That’s a first. Never heard of a spa that doesn’t plaster ads all over the Internet. Maybe Cecil could create one for them.”
“By invitation only or word of mouth. But thank you for thinking of my budding web designer.”
“What did you say it’s called?”
“Finedale,” whispered Brett. Clearing her throat, she looked straight into Grace’s eyes and spoke more loudly. “Finedale Treatment Spa for Women.”