I sat on a padded bench on one side of the chapel with my boys. The building felt like home in some ways. There was the typical Visitors Welcome sign outside. Inside, the walls had paintings I’d seen in other chapels. I could guess with relative accuracy where the Primary room was, where to find the Relief Society room, the tithing slips, and even the restrooms.
But this wasn’t home. The congregation—my new ward—was filled with strange faces.
      During the opening hymn, I watched the woman conducting. I scanned the bishopric up front, the priests—and what looked like one of their leaders—at the sacrament table. A few rows ahead of me, I spotted a couple who looked close to my age. His arm rested on her shoulders; her head rested on it. Suddenly, she lifted her head, and he leaned over as if to hear what she had to say, but she didn’t speak. Instead, she kissed his cheek and smiled, adjusted their little girl’s position on her lap, then rested her head on his arm again.
      My singing voice caught in my throat, and I looked away. Not another sound came out as I stared at the floor and struggled to rein in my emotions. Six months ago, Doug and I had looked just like that.
I hadn’t known about Carol yet, although, in hindsight, the signs had been there. I’d simply excused them all away. When Carol’s husband had been convicted of embezzlement, she’d been left alone and desperate for work. We’d hired her part time to help in the office at Doug’s dental practice.
I’d taught her how to bill insurance companies and how to order supplies through our vendors. And Doug. He’d shown a level of compassion I was proud of—at the time.
Later I noticed the cell phone bills with calls and texts to a number I didn’t recognize. A trip to a dental convention that cost twice as much as usual, with the explanation that Ben, the colleague Doug usually traveled and shared costs with, had brought his wife, so Doug roomed alone.
He hadn’t been alone.
I touched a finger to one eye and then the other, bringing away moisture that I wiped on my black skirt. I lifted my chin and breathed in and out. Did anyone in this crowd have similar secrets? Were any other women under the same illusion I had been, carrying on as if their lives were the Mormon ideal, not knowing that a storm was about to break and tear everything apart?
And how would they accept me into the fold?
One reason I’d fled to California was to escape the people Doug and I knew in Utah, all the people who didn’t know the details of Doug’s affair and our divorce. Many of them had known me since grade school and the two of us since college. Some took sides. Others stared in silence. Some judged.
As if I didn’t already judge myself. The divorce might have been final, but I could still hardly believe it. What did I do wrong? What could I have done to prevent my husband from straying? Wasn’t I a good enough wife?
Doug had hired a shark of an attorney, leaving me without a whole lot besides Doug’s crusty old car from high school, custody—besides some holidays and weeks during the summer—and a little child support, which wouldn’t kick in for a couple of months.
Where was Doug right this minute? Was he at church today, pretending to be Mr. Righteous? He might be sitting in a new chapel too—in Colorado, where he’d moved with Carol. His arm might be over her shoulders. She might be reaching up to kiss his cheek. Smelling his cologne—the scent I’d known and recognized as mine for years. The thoughts sent a physical pain into my chest and made my eyes burn. I swallowed hard in a vain attempt to get rid of both. Sometimes, especially at church, I avoided thinking her name, mostly because Carol had become a swear word to me. And I did use the name that way, more often than I cared to admit.
I’d originally felt sorry for this woman. I’d helped her. I’d held her as she’d cried about her husband’s betrayal. The irony made my stomach turn.
The meeting ended, and I gathered the crayons and coloring pages the boys had been playing with. As I took three-year-old Nate’s chubby little hand, I prayed he’d go to a strange Nursery without a fight. Shawn, who was approaching his seventh birthday, followed behind. Several people smiled as we passed. I tried smiling back, but it was hard. Ever since the divorce, I’d pulled into myself. Going into public—even doing my hair and make-up—was hard. Now I was surrounded by strangers, people called “brother” and “sister.” People I was expected to socialize with. I felt anything but social right then, and the idea of ever viewing these strangers as anything like family seemed about as likely as a fairy godmother showing up to fix all my problems.
Soon I’d have to introduce myself. I wasn’t sure I could do that, even though I’d practiced a basic statement in front of the mirror. Nothing sounded right. How could I introduce myself when I didn’t even know who I was anymore? I was a new ex-wife. I was a failure—an angry one.
Every time I thought of the affair, I blamed it on either me or on Carol. Somehow, never on Doug. Blaming him made sense to my brain, but I couldn’t do it n my heart, even though deep down I knew hearts never made any sense.
As we headed for the crowded hallway, I chattered to the boys to keep my mind off of Doug and . . . her. And the fact that they were married now. Just days after we’d completed the final paperwork.
“They’ll sing the same songs as in our old ward,” I assured the boys for probably the fifteenth time that day. “Nate, the Nursery will have some brand new toys you’ve never seen before. I wonder if they have a train or some action figures.”
“Like Superman?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Or Batman?”
“Sure,” I said, hoping against hope that the Nursery did have some action figure. I’d settle for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle—anything that could pass for an action figure—because then Nathan would be happy.
We arrived at the Nursery classroom—they had just one, which I wasn’t used to; my Utah ward had three Nurseries.
“Are you new?” a tiny slip of a woman asked with a sing-songy voice—for Nathan’s benefit, I assumed.
“We just moved in this week,” I said. I’d smile if it killed me. “This is Nathan. He’s three.”
The woman squatted to his level, making him cling tighter to my leg. “Well, hello, Nathan. You’re such a big boy.”
I caught Shawn rolling his eyes next to me and was grateful for a reason to hide a laugh. Even though he’d just started first grade, he was well aware of any time adults talked down to him as if he were a “little kid.” Even though he was. I could imagine what he’d say the minute we stepped away from the classroom: Nate’s not a baby, Mom.
I squeezed his hand conspiratorially and introduced myself to the Nursery leader. “I’m Paige Anderson.”
“Shelly Bateman.” She looked so young that without the ring on her finger, I would have assumed she couldn’t drive yet. A girl about a year old toddled over, holding her arms up and grunting. Shelly picked her up. “And this is my Ashley. She’s not old enough for Nursery, but since it’s our calling, she gets to be here with us.”
Us? I peered into the classroom and noted a twenty-something man sitting on a miniature chair dwarfed by his legs—his knees were nearly in his ears—playing cars with three little boys on a short, eight-foot-long table. He was making screeching and roaring noises that rivaled the toddlers’.
“That’s my husband, Jeremy,” Shelly said. “We just had our second anniversary last week! Two whole years now—can you believe it? We’re officially no longer newlyweds.” She waited silently in expectation. I wasn’t sure whether to congratulate her on the milestone or share how long my husband and I had been married . . . which I couldn’t.
I opted for distraction. “Wow. Two years,” I said. “That’s great. Goes fast, doesn’t it?” I switched gears to Nate. “Isn’t her little girl Ashley cute? She’s got brown hair, just like you. So if you need anything, just talk to Ashley’s mom or dad. He’s over there. Look—lots of other boys to play with. And I bet there’s an action figure in the toy bin by the window.”
I was rambling like an idiot. Somehow, Shawn became my leveling influence. He took his little brother’s hand and tugged him toward the other side of the room. “Let’s go look for an action figure.”
Nate clung to Shawn’s hand but looked back at me. I waved and smiled stiffly. When he detected no sign of me ditching him, he followed his brother to the toy bin and rummaged through the piles.
“So . . .” Shelly said, turning back to me. She hitched Ashley higher on her hip and smiled in the way only an inexperienced two-year newlywed can. “What brings you to Newport? Your husband’s work?”
Ouch. I had to swallow before answering, if nothing else to keep from crying but also to give me a second to form a coherent sentence. You’ve practiced this already. Just say what you rehearsed. But that’s not what come out.
“No, no husband anymore. It’s just me and the boys.” My rambling tongue abandoned me. That was all I could say—and it wasn’t at all what I’d meant to say. I couldn’t leave it at that, so I managed, “We moved to the Newport area after the divorce because I’ve got some family here.”
I didn’t mention that the “family” nearby was actually Doug’s parents. June and Rex Anderson still saw me as their daughter and had been nothing but supportive throughout the mess of the last several months. They’d promised to help with the boys. Doug and I had lived in the area for dental school, so it didn’t seem entirely foreign. My parents recently left on a mission, and my four siblings were scattered across the country, so June and Rex were the most stable family I had. A month ago, when I put money down on a lease, moving here—and away from all the familiar, judging faces—had sounded like a good idea.
“Oh, I’m . . . I’m so sorry,” Shelly said. “I didn’t mean to pry . . .” She glanced at her husband, but I couldn’t read her face. At first I wondered if she was contemplating whether they could ever split up. But when she turned back to me, her face was a mask of sympathy. Surely she and her beloved Jeremy would make it.
I was that naïve once.
In truth, I’d go back to that innocent belief if it meant having my family back together. I didn’t want sympathy. I wanted my family back. What could I have done to save it?
“Spider-Man!” Nathan cried with gusto. “Look, Mama!” He ran back, flying the toy toward me.
“That’s great, buddy!” I said, happy for a distraction.
Nathan made Spider-Man scale my arm like a skyscraper and then shot a web to the wall and swung over to it. I squatted down and touched his arm to get his attention. “Hey, do you think you’ll be all right while I take Shawn to Primary?”
Spider-Man was busy shooting webs all across the room, so Nathan didn’t even hear me. I straightened and laughed. “I take that as a yes. Come here, Shawn. Let’s get you to class.”
In the hall, Shawn ran to the Primary door and peered inside, where they’d already begun and some kid was giving a talk. The boy’s mother whispered into his ear, and he bellowed the words into the microphone, nearly swallowing it whole. The boy was a brunette version of Aaron Moody from my last ward. For the second time in just a few minutes, I found my mouth curving into a smile—still an unfamiliar, albeit not unpleasant, sensation. The Church really was the same everywhere you went.
A stout woman with an auburn bob approached us in the hallway. Her face lit up when she saw us. “I heard we had a new family in the ward,” she said. “I’m Sister Parker, the Primary president. Let’s see if we can find where you belong.” She held a binder to her chest and leaned toward Shawn. “What’s your name?”
He held my hand a bit tighter and glanced up at me as if to ask whether he had permission to talk to a stranger. I nodded for him to go ahead.
“I’m Shawn.”
“And how old are you, Shawn?”
“He’ll be seven next month,” I added, knowing that would affect which class he was put into.
Sister Parker consulted a page in her binder. “That puts him in Sister O’Reilly’s CTR 7 class. You’ll love Sister O’Reilly. She’s an artist and draws the neatest things on the board during her lessons.” She addressed the last part to Shawn as she pulled out a paper from her binder and handed it to me. “I’ll take him to sit with his class. After church, you’ll pick him up at this classroom. It’s right down this hall and into the foyer—the class on the left.” She juggled some papers in her binder and slipped out a bright pink sheet. “Would you fill this out? I like having an info sheet on all the families in the ward. Helps me get to know the children better.”
“Sure,” I said, taking the paper as I surrendered my son. Shawn went with her happily, and I waved as he trotted into the room beside Sister Parker. I took out a pen from my bag and started filling out the getting-to-know-you form. It would make me even later to the adult Sunday School class, which was just fine with me—I might avoid getting introduced. I pulled out a copy of The Friend for something to put the page against. I leaned against the wall and clicked the ballpoint pen top. I read the first line.
I wanted to scratch out the last letter to make the word singular. My pen dug into the page.
Parent, singular. He’s got one.
The Primary president didn’t really want to know about both of Shawn’s parents; the form blindly assumed children would have two parents in the ward. Doug doesn’t belong on this paper. Sure, he was technically the boys’ father. But here, in our new life, my boys didn’t have parents. Just a mom. Me.
The first line wasn’t filled out yet, and already I could feel a meltdown threatening to erupt. I closed my eyes, admitting to myself that as much as I hated Carol, Doug was just as much at fault for what happened between them. It would be nice to blame the seductress who took my husband. As if he’d been powerless against her wiles. As if she hadn’t seduced him without his total willingness to go along.
She made me feel special, Doug had said by way of explanation. She accepted me for who I was.
He’d put the failure of our marriage in my lap. If I’d been a better, more attentive, supportive, loving wife, maybe, just maybe, Doug wouldn’t have strayed. Forget covenants; it was all my fault.
I didn’t want—couldn’t—live with those thoughts. Although guilt and shame plagued me day and night on a conscious level, I found that blaming her for shattering my happily ever after was easier than the other option—believing I’d failed as a wife. That if I’d been enough for Doug, he wouldn’t have been pushed into another woman’s arms.
Steadying my hand, I filled in the first line of the getting-to-know-you form.
Parents: Paige Anderson
I applauded myself for not crossing out the extra S, but my vision blurred, making it hard to read the next line.
I hate you, Doug. Hate, hate, hate you. You’re such a . . . Carol.

1 comment:

  1. Am almost finished with PAIGE, and it is like you guys have delved into my journals for these stories. Almost spooky. Am loving this one as much as the others and can't wait to read Athena!!! Hope I feel well enough to make it Saturday night, but if I can't get there, know I am with you in spirit!!! You gals rock!!!