HERE IS SOMETHING I LEARNED when I was eleven years old: Pain has a flavor. The question is, what does it taste like to you?
TONIGHT, MY PAIN TASTED LIKE ORANGES. I sat across from my husband in a corner booth at the restaurant Scampo in Beacon Hill. Discreet waiters appeared to silently refill our glasses of champagne. Two for him. Three for me. Homemade breads covered the white linen tablecloth, as well as fresh selections from the mozzarella bar. Next would be tidy bowls of hand-cut noodles, topped with sweet peas, crispy pancetta, and a light cream sauce. Justin’s favorite dish. He’d discovered it on a business trip to Italy twenty years ago and had been requesting it at fine Italian restaurants ever since.
I lifted my champagne glass. Sipped. Set it down.
Across from me, Justin smiled, lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. His light brown hair, worn short, was graying at the temples, but it worked for him. He had that rugged outdoors look that never went out of fashion. Women checked him out when we entered bars. Men did, too, curious about the new arrival, an obvious alpha male who paired scuffed work boots with two-hundred-dollar Brooks Brothers shirts and made both look the better for it.
“Gonna eat?” my husband asked.
“I’m saving myself for the pasta.”
He smiled again, and I thought of white sandy beaches, the salty tang of ocean air. I remembered the feel of the soft cotton sheets tangled around my bare legs as we spent the second morning of our honeymoon still sequestered in our private bungalow. Justin hand-fed me fresh peeled oranges while I delicately licked the sticky juice from his calloused fingers.
I took another sip of champagne, holding it inside my mouth this time, and concentrating on the feel of liquid bubbles.
I wondered if she had been prettier than me. More exciting. Better in bed. Or maybe, in the way these things worked, none of that mattered. Didn’t factor into the equation. Men cheated because men cheated. If a husband could, he would.
Meaning that, in its own way, the past six months of my marriage hadn’t been anything personal.
I took another sip, still drinking champagne, still tasting oranges.
Justin polished off the selection of appetizers, took a restrained sip of his own champagne, then absently rearranged his silverware.
Justin had inherited his father’s twenty-five-million-dollar construction business at the age of twenty-seven. Some sons would’ve been content to let a successful business continue as is. Not Justin. By the time I met him when he was thirty-four, he’d already doubled revenue to the fifty-million mark, with a goal of achieving seventy-five million in the next two years. And not by sitting in some office. Justin prided himself on being a master of most trades. Plumbing, electrical, drywall, concrete. He was boots on the ground, spending time with his men, mingling with the subcontractors, first one on the site, last one to leave.
In the beginning, that’s one of the things I’d loved most about him. A man’s man. Comfortable in a wood-paneled boardroom but also played a mean game of pickup hoops and thought nothing of taking his favorite .357 to light up the firing range.
When we were first dating, he’d take me with him to his gun club. I’d stand, tucked into the solid embrace of his larger, stronger body, while he showed me how to position my hands on the grip of a relatively petite .22, how to sight down the barrel, home in on the bull’s-eye. The first few times, I missed the target completely, the sound of the gunshot startling me, causing me to flinch even with ear protection. I’d fire into the ground or, if I was very lucky, hit the lowest edge of the paper target.
Time and time again, Justin would patiently correct me, his voice a low rumble against the back of my neck as he leaned over and helped me level out my aim.
Sometimes we never made it home. We’d end up naked in the closet of the rifle range, or in the backseat of his SUV, still in the parking lot. He’d dig his fingers into my hips, urging me faster and harder, and I’d obey, out of my mind with gunpowder and lust and pure mind-blowing power.
Salt. Gunpowder. Oranges.
Justin excused himself to use the bathroom.
When he left, I rearranged the pasta on my plate so it would appear as if I’d eaten. Then, I opened my purse and, under the cover of the table, doled out four white pills. I popped them as a single handful, chased down with half a glass of water.
Then I picked up my glass of champagne and steeled myself for the evening’s main event.
JUSTIN DROVE US THE FIVE MINUTES HOME. He’d purchased the Boston town house pretty much the same day we’d confirmed that I was pregnant. From doctor’s office to real estate office. He brought me to see it after reaching a verbal agreement, the big-game hunter showing off his trophy. I probably should’ve been offended by his high-handedness. Instead, I’d walked through four and a half stories of gorgeous hardwood floors, soaring nine-foot ceilings and intricate hand-carved moldings, and felt my jaw drop.
So this is what five million dollars bought you. Bright, sunlit rooms, a charming rooftop patio, not to mention an entire neighborhood of beautifully restored redbrick buildings, nestled shoulder to shoulder like long-lost friends.
The townhome was on tree-lined Marlborough Street, just blocks away from tony Newbury Street, not to mention walking distance to the Public Gardens. The kind of neighborhood where the poor people drove Saabs, the nannies spoke with French accents and the private school had an application process that started the baby’s first week of conception.
Justin gave me carte blanche. Furniture, art, draperies, carpets. Antiques, no antiques, interior decorator, no interior decorator. He didn’t care. Do whatever I had to do, spend whatever I had to spend, just make this our home.
So I did. Like that scene out of Pretty Woman, except it involved slathering painters and decorators and antiques dealers, all plying their wares while I sat my pregnant bulk on various divans and with an elegant wave of my hand ordered a bit of this, a dash of that. Frankly, I had fun with it. Finally, a real-world application for my fine-art skills. I could not only fashion jewelry out of silver-infused clay, I could renovate a Boston brownstone.
We were giddy those days. Justin was working a major hydroelectric project. He’d helicopter in and out, literally, and I’d show off the latest progress on our home, while he rubbed my lower back and brushed back my hair to nuzzle the side of my neck.
Then, Ashlyn. And joy, joy, joy. Happy, happy, happy. Justin beamed, snapped photos, showed off his precious baby girl to anyone who made eye contact. His crew filed into our Boston town house, muddy boots left in the gleaming foyer so a bunch of former Navy SEALs and ex-marines could make googly eyes at our sleeping daughter in her pink-coated nursery. They swapped tips on diaper changing and proper swaddling, then set out to teach a newborn how to burp the ABCs.