By Julie Metz
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 9, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
“He loved you so much.” That’s what everyone keeps telling her. It’s true that he loved Julie and their six-year-old daughter ebulliently and devotedly, but as she starts to pick up the pieces and rebuild her life without Henry in it, she learns that Henry had been unfaithful throughout their twelve years of marriage. The most damaging affair was ongoing — a tumultuous relationship that ended only with Henry’s death.
For Julie, the only thing to do was to get at the real truth–to strip away the veneer of “perfection” that was her life and confront each of the women beneath the veneer. Perfection is the story of Julie Metz’s journey through chaos and transformation as she creates a different life for herself and her young daughter. It is the story of coming to terms with painful truths, of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood. It is a story of rebirth and happiness — if not perfection.
For my Chimwemwe,
I hope this book will give you answers when you are ready to
ask the questions.
And for Clark,
For being loving and kind, just as you promised.
In memory of my mother, who was brave, right to the end.
It happened like this: Henry’s footsteps on the old wooden…
Friends and family returned to their lives, the house was…
A few weeks after Henry’s death, I received a note…
Once my affair with Tomas was fully out in the…
Heat rose in waves from the asphalt road ahead of…
The heat continued unabated. People were dying from this heat.
The days crawled by, the heat relentless. At least Liza…
I had met Eliana once, just a few months before…
Blue sky, feathery clouds, a supreme August day. Barefoot in…
On the last Saturday night of November 1986, a friend…
The last Saturday afternoon in October arrived bright and chilly,…
While I contemplated what to do with my house, I…
“You are so sexy! I’m coming again!”
After much internal preparation, I went to see Emily one…
The shelves of Henry’s office library were packed past capacity.
Once I had made the decision to move, there were…
Many days after that perfect one were full of difficulty.
The Present Moment
Even at twenty-two, long before frantic motherhood and the onset.
From Henry, Valentine’s Day, 2002
A groaning table for my ears’ hunger
A palette of joys for my eyes’ old master
A life with you
Enough for my mind’s forever
Explaining is where we all get into trouble.
January 8–12, 2003
It happened like this: Henry’s footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.
I was working downstairs in my office on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon. My work space was an enclosed sunporch off our living room, the small-paned windows on three sides framing a view of the snowy hills across the road. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing fuzzy socks on my chilled feet, I continued studying the project on my computer screen. At forty-three, I had been a graphic designer for nearly twenty years, a freelancer, specializing in cover designs for book publishers. Today’s project was a novel about hard-luck cowboys, due yesterday, as always. I stopped fiddling with type design possibilities as I glanced at the computer clock—in an hour I would have to make a dash out to the car to pick up our six-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Liza, just before school let out at 3:10. Henry had been sick in bed all morning. There would be the freezing cold wait and the daily social milling with the other mothers on the school playground, then the quick drive home to finish my work. I’d wear my new sheepskin coat today and feel guilty about its expense on a warmer day. On second thought, the distressed sans serif type worked better with the moody image of a cowboy leaning against a split-rail fence.
Suddenly my brain rewound sharply.
It wasn’t a package dropped outside by the UPS guy.
My office phone rang. Instinctively, I answered. The photographer on the line asked me how I liked the images he had e-mailed.
It wasn’t the cats knocking groceries off the kitchen counter.
“I can’t talk now—something bad is happening.” I ended the call abruptly.
The rooms were silent as I ran up the stairs, calling for Henry. Two of our four cats skittered out of my way, their nails clawing the wooden treads. The bedroom was empty. I raced back down the stairs.
I found Henry on his back, spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, his head a few inches from the oven broiler. He was still breathing. His body was silhouetted against the sea blue of the painted floorboards. I imagined a police chalk drawing of the outline of the victim at a crime scene. I was overcome with the feeling that I was in the scene and watching a scene on television—an opening sequence of an episode of Six Feet Under, our favorite show that year. Usually some minor character dies in the first five minutes. Henry inhaled with a shallow breath; small dribbles of saliva on his curved lips, the skin on his face now sallow and ashen. He exhaled with a feeble sigh. His eyes flickered half open. I spoke to him to let him know that I was there with him, but for once in our life together he could not speak back.
A long, elastic minute stretched out and snapped: Is this when people call 911? Or is Henry going to sit up and tell me to stop fussing, like he did yesterday after he passed out? This must be the same thing. He came in after taking out the garbage and fell down flat on the floor. The doctor said all the tests were normal—
I called 911. I sat down on the floor next to him, stroking his forehead, watching him breathe. A hissing sound, as spittle pulsed between his lips.
I wish I had a notepad and pencil. Henry would want me to take notes. The EMS guys will come. They’ll check him out. He’ll be fine. He’ll be telling people about his near death at our next dinner party. “The report of my death was an exaggeration” is what he’ll say. Everyone will laugh, and I’ll feel pathetic for having worried so much. I’m happy to feel pathetic if everything will just please, please turn out okay.
I called 911 again, just to be sure. I called Emily, who lived five minutes away and was usually home at two in the afternoon. Anna was more reliable—I knew she wouldn’t freak out, no matter what happened today—but she lived twelve minutes away. Then I called Matthew, Henry’s best friend, who lived with his wife in a nearby town.
Every minute will make a difference. The EMS guys will come; they will bring oxygen tanks, defibrillators, and IV bags. All will be well. Emily will help me find a babysitter for Liza, then she will go with me to the hospital, and we’ll get there and Henry will be awake, smiling and joking as usual.
I sat back down next to him on the blue floor, stroking the familiar wrinkles, the scar over one eyelid, the small mole at the crest of one cheek.
Inhale. Exhale. A blue gauze curtain passed over him. His skin turned to wax.
“Breathe!” I screamed at him. “Start breathing now!” I pounded him on the chest. He wasn’t listening to me. I placed my mouth on his and blew my breath into him; the blue briefly faded into rose like a watercolor wash. But the flush faded back to blue. He was still. The man who for sixteen years had loved me, driven me crazy, fought with me, fed me, made love with me, made a baby with me, exhaled one last breath, the air I had blown into his lungs.
I looked up, distracted by the sound of the sliding porch door, followed by a blast of cold air. The EMS guys had arrived with a gurney and gear and gently hustled me out of the kitchen. Emily followed right after them.
You’ll know it’s bad when they take you to the little waiting room. Emily held my left arm. Her face was pale, her lips still rosy from the cold, her dark bobbed hair peeking from under a familiar blue cloche hat. Matthew sat on my right. Matthew was tall, built like a tree. The sad-eyed young doctor told us it was a pulmonary embolism. A blood clot, formed in the leg, had moved upward and lodged in the lung, causing cardiac arrest. They had tried everything they could to revive him. But.
Everything moved in slow motion as I processed his words. This couldn’t be right. He was only forty-four. Whenever we’d watched Six Feet Under together, the main characters had made it safely to the next episode. I slid off my chair to the floor and screamed.
“You can lie next to him if you want,” Emily said. She was calm, amazingly, looking at Henry’s lifeless body on the gurney. “Go ahead, it won’t bother me at all.”
I climbed up onto the narrow gurney and lay down next to him. He would have wanted me to note every detail for him—the way his chest was still warm, while his arms were already stiff and cold and his fingers were curled and blue. He had a bruise on the left side of his face. It was comforting to rest there with my arm around him, touching him in a familiar way, relieved still to have a companion, even a quiet one.
He had beautiful feet, elegantly articulated toes, like the feet on a Greek statue. I peeled back his shirt to look at the distinctive scar on his chest. A bit of cornhusk had punctured his skin while he was working on a farm as a teenager. The healing wound had formed an inch-long raised keloid that I loved to touch in the dark. I touched the large dark mole on his left shoulder. I felt the scar over his right eye, received when he was a child in a hotel in Honolulu (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry always added when telling the story), when a window had fallen suddenly out of its molding as he passed under it with his family. All his scars and moles, so well known to me, like stepping-stones marking the way home through a dark wood.
Two nurses came in. “You should go home now and get some rest,” one said. She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed me gently.
Emily took my arm, and we walked down the fluorescent-lit corridors and stepped out into the twilight, inky blue with low-hanging clouds. A flock of black birds rushed up into the sky, their wings moving in unison, a tragic banner.
“I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” Henry had joked two weeks before he died. We were on our Christmas vacation, visiting Henry’s college friend and his family on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle. During the short daylight hours under the continuous gray blanket of northwest cloud cover, the kids played and drank hot chocolate, while we adults planned meals, decorated the holiday tree, and prepared for the arrival of Santa Claus. Henry, who loved all parties but disliked Christmas, watched from the couch.
His quip was familiar to me. When he was sixteen, he had taken a spin on a friend’s new motorcycle straight into an oncoming white pickup truck as he came around a tight curve. He loved telling this story, with a new embellishment every time.
“I’m lying there bleeding, with my right leg broken in seven places, the guy is weeping and begging me not to die. I had to calm the guy down so he’d go get help from the neighbor.” Henry’s leg had been repaired, but he always had some pain and swallowed daily doses of Advil. He predicted that he would need a knee replacement by the time he was fifty, a wheelchair at sixty.
Jokes aside, I worried as I watched Henry—dozing, reading a magazine, tapping away on his laptop, dozing some more. During these vacation days, he had barely gotten off the couch. When I asked him about how he was feeling, he said that he was just tired from all the traveling of the last year, that he couldn’t wait to get home, to begin writing his book.
The subject of his book was umami, a Japanese word that translates as “perfection,” usually as it relates to food. Umami also translates as “the fifth taste,” best described for Westerners as “savory.” The other tastes are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami is the feeling of mouthwatering deliciousness during, and complete satiety after, a good meal. Umami is the taste of protein, caressed by fat—the pleasurable viscous taste of a meat stew, a rich sauce, or a morsel of creamy cheese. There is umami in a piece of sun-ripened fruit, or a glass of complex wine. More crassly, Big Food corporations hire food scientists to add chemically enhanced umami to otherwise tasteless food—Big Macs, snack chips, and those frozen dinners in your freezer. Umami is also the taste of the demonized flavor-enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), favored by Chinese restaurants.
But Henry’s mission was to hunt down the real thing. He had gravitated to the West Coast, where the freshness of food, produce particularly, embodied the idea of perfection more than did the off-season shipments of unripe tomatoes and mealy peaches typically available on the East Coast. Under contract from a publisher, with half his advance paid, he traveled up and down the coast during 2002, sampling farm-ripened fruit, exotic varieties of seafood and seaweed, and regional wines.
He spent most of the year back and forth, making at least eight trips out West, some as long as three weeks. He ate meals at food temples such as The French Laundry in the Napa Valley and The Herb Farm in Woodinville, Washington. He tasted freshly harvested oysters and wild mushrooms in Oregon. He visited wine producers and experts up and down the coast. He wrote me a long e-mail about the now rare Marshall strawberries he tasted at one of the small family-owned farms in the San Juan Islands of Washington State on a trip with David Karp, a well-known fruit expert.
Henry returned from his trips with jars of Meyer lemon preserve, homemade salsas, and a nifty gadget called a Brix refractometer, which measures the sugar content of fruit. The produce manager of our local grocery store was impressed as Henry jabbed his pocketknife into nectarines and oranges to release juice for testing. FedEx surprised us with another treasure—a box of organic peaches from Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, California. Each drenching bite sent my salivary glands into almost painful over-drive.
Liza and I had joined him once during this long travel year, in May. We stayed at the Sooke Harbour House, a hotel-restaurant on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Liza, who already showed signs of having inherited the culinary gene, loved the seafood and the special tour of the kitchen. She and I spent our days enjoying walks and outdoor play while Henry and the proprietor went deep-sea diving for underwater creatures. They returned one afternoon with a story of a nearly exhausted oxygen tank, a large octopus, and several purple-hinged rock scallops. The octopus and scallops ended up as soup ingredients later that evening. The intense and complex perfume of the broth, like nothing I had ever tasted, was the essence of umami.
Liza, not quite six years old, finished that meal and announced her career goal of opening her own hotel-restaurant. Her hotel would have yoga classes for me and room service for her cats.
December 31. We had returned home from our Christmas vacation on Bainbridge Island. Henry stood in the center of our kitchen, chewing his right pointer fingernail while he considered the last preparations for our annual New Year’s Eve party.
His rounded belly wrapped in a stained apron, Henry picked up a wine goblet and took a generous swig, reinforcement for the task ahead, then gnawed the nails of his left hand. Sometimes when we were driving up the highway toward the dreary miles of strip malls, Henry would roll down the window and spit out the bits of skin and nail he had torn off with his teeth, like stray bones in a piece of fish. With similar energy, he joyfully crunched the cartilage of chicken bones and stripped his steak ribs down to bare white, displaying his sharp canine teeth with the gusto of a ravenous dog.
Henry set the wineglass down on the table and fretted over the crust on the roasted leg of lamb resting on a platter, peeling off and eating a morsel to satisfy himself that his guests would be pleased. He walked to the refrigerator and took out a platter with a side of home-cured salmon. His slicing knife flashed, and his greasy fingers offered me the thin slice of the gravlax, coral and translucent like amber. The fish slid down my throat. It was delicious. It would be even better eaten on toast with capers and chopped red onions, when our guests arrived in an hour. He sliced another piece and popped it into my mouth.
Henry had fed me our wedding cake thirteen years earlier with this same careless and childlike enthusiasm—pressing a big wad of chocolate cake into my widened mouth. I was startled and embarrassed at the time. But his irreverence was a secret promise that we would create together an unconventional and passionate life. He licked the remains of the cake from his fingers and flashed me one of his wide Cheshire Cat grins. He looked so devastating in his midnight blue vintage tuxedo, his dark skin, almond eyes, and curly hair set off by a crisp white shirt. As he seized me by the waist, and whispered in my ear how much he loved me, I creamed the lacy panties I had bought for the occasion.
After replacing the salmon in the refrigerator, Henry took out a small plastic container of veal stock saved from a prior cooking adventure—many bones, many hours. He emptied the contents into a small pot, coaxing a sauce from the veal stock, the drippings from the roasting pan, and port wine.
I watched him work and tried to clean up the mess. Wrapped in a white apron, sponge and paper towels in hand, I mopped up the stray grains of rice, turkey giblets, and vegetable parings that had rained down from the counter onto the blue-painted wood floor. I had chosen a color that would reveal everything in sharp contrast—not hide or camouflage. Now I could see bits of salmon in the cracks between the narrow floorboards, I just couldn’t get them out.
As I brushed by him, attacking the mess, his face grimaced. “Get out of my way, goddammit, can’t you see I’m busy here?”
Despite the togetherness we presented at our New Year’s Eve parties, Henry and I could barely get through a week without yelling at each other. In our early days, we’d argued about politics, but now we fought the domestic battles of child rearing and housekeeping. Once, during one of our more heated battles, he threw volume one of The Oxford English Dictionary at me. It missed, but I still felt wounded by the weight of a book with so many words I didn’t know, words I hadn’t been able to summon up as a clever retort to his insult. Later he had apologized, as he did now, quickly and tenderly.
I rushed to the cellar to hunt down the plastic champagne glasses. Although alcohol inspired carelessness in our guests that made me fear for our beautiful Venetian glass champagne flutes, Henry always insisted on releasing them from their glass case for the early birds. Delighted by their flamboyance, Henry liked showing them off to guests, even if there was a risk of breakage, while I treasured them as objects and would rather have saved them for more intimate gatherings. They were a wedding gift from a generous friend, too expensive to replace. Returning upstairs with the plastic glasses, I placed them and the paper plates, napkins, and cutlery on one side of the dining room table, soon to be heaped with a mighty spread. A large cooler waited with ice and several dozen chilling oysters, ready to be shucked. I didn’t dare ask Henry what those oysters had cost. Urging restraint seemed pointless. When he took my debit card to go food shopping for our dinner parties, I made a point of barely glancing at the receipts. Living with Henry meant embracing the necessity of a $150-an-ounce white truffle.
When I reentered the kitchen, he smiled and offered me a taste of his potion. The sauce was velvety and impenetrable, the tastes of dinners past mingled with the present drippings and port, a bay leaf sailing on the surface of the dark liquid. I gazed around at the mess in the kitchen—my mopping and tidying had done nothing to calm the hurricane.
“What does it need?” he asked.
“Nothing.” I watched him stir with tenderness. For him a sauce was such a serious business. Too bad he hadn’t become a professional chef, with a staff of minions to admire him and clean up after him.
He fussed some more, stirring and tasting. “I think it needs more salt.”
“It’s excellent,” I said. “Perfect. Really.” But I suspected that his sauce just needed a larger, more appreciative audience.
Liza galloped down the stairs, looking for her friends. At six and a half, her face had the look of children from another time and place, with an eclectic combination of traits from the available gene pool—Henry’s Asian-Anglo background and my mishmash of Eastern European Jewry. She had inherited Henry’s olive skin, and the bowed lips that reminded me of a pink rosebud. Dark honey-colored hair fell in perfect corkscrew ringlets to her shoulders, framing large almond-shaped eyes the color of seawater cupped in gray granite. She had my firm chin and my square-tipped fingers, purposeful and charming in diminutive size, especially when painted with robin’s egg blue nail polish, as they were that evening.
Our first guests arrived, bringing an icy blast of snow and the musty scent of dead leaves from the wintry backyard. They carried cold bottles of champagne, and the bakers of the group brought homemade Swedish chocolate cookies and almond torte.
Emily and her husband, Justin, arrived early. I could always rely on Emily to provide a bit of bohemian glamour, a taste of the urban life I had left behind. I had sought her out after spotting her with her family at a local restaurant. The cute haircut, the red lips, the cloche hat. That woman, she could be my friend. Like many women in our town, she wasn’t working and spent the time while our kids were in school on her personal writing and artwork. My life was all about deadlines, but since I was a freelancer we talked daily about books and art, often while I worked at my computer. In the afternoons after school, I often took Liza to her house. Her younger daughter Zoe had become one of Liza’s good friends. While the kids played, Emily and I continued our talks over cups of tea. She could be the most exuberant fun, and a breath of fresh air in my otherwise quiet life, but sometimes, in contrast to her confident-looking appearance, she was as fragile as a needy child. Now her party persona—an all-smiles starlet on the red carpet—was on full view as she burst into the kitchen to admire the preparations.
“My God! Look at this feast!”
- On Sale
- Jun 9, 2009
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Hachette Books