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Two by Two
Read by Ari Fliakos
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At 32, Russell Green has it all: a stunning wife, a lovable six year-old daughter, a successful career as an advertising executive, and an expansive home in Charlotte. He is living the dream, and his marriage to the bewitching Vivian is at the center of it. But underneath the shiny surface of this perfect existence, fault lines are beginning to appear . . . and no one is more surprised than Russ when every aspect of the life he has taken for granted is turned upside down.
Table of Contents
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And Baby Makes Three
Wow!" I can remember saying as soon as Vivian stepped out of the bathroom and showed me the positive result of the pregnancy test. "That's great!"
In truth, my feelings were closer to… Really? Already?
It was more shock than anything, with a bit of terror mixed in. We'd been married for a little more than a year and she'd already told me that she intended to stay home for the first few years when we decided to have a baby. I'd always agreed when she'd said it—I wanted the same thing—but in that moment, I also understood that our life as a couple with two incomes would soon be coming to an end. Moreover, I wasn't sure whether I was even ready to become a father, but what could I do? It wasn't as though she'd tricked me, nor had she concealed the fact that she wanted to have a baby, and she'd let me know when she stopped taking the pill. I wanted children as well, of course, but she'd stopped the pill only three weeks earlier. I can remember thinking that I probably had a few months at least before her body readjusted to its normal, baby-making state. For all I knew, it could be hard for her to become pregnant, which meant it might even be a year or two.
But not my Vivian. Her body had adjusted right away. My Vivian was fertile.
I slipped my arms around her, studying her to see if she was already glowing. But it was too soon for that, right? What exactly is glowing, anyway? Is it just another way of saying someone looks hot and sweaty? How were our lives going to change? And by how much?
Questions tumbled around and around, and as I held my wife, I, Russell Green, had answers to none of them.
Months later, the big IT happened, though I admit much of the day remains a blur.
In retrospect, I probably should have written it all down while it was still fresh in my mind. A day like the big IT should be remembered in vivid detail—not the fuzzy snapshots I tend to recall. The only reason I remember as much as I do is because of Vivian. Every detail seemed etched into her consciousness, but then she was the one in labor, and pain has a way of sometimes sharpening the mind. Or so they say.
What I do know is this: Sometimes, in recalling events of that day, she and I are of slightly differing opinions. For instance, I considered my actions completely understandable under the circumstances, whereas Vivian would declare alternately that I was selfish, or simply a complete idiot. When she told the story to friends—and she has done so many times—people inevitably laughed, or shook their heads and offered her pitying glances.
In all fairness, I don't think I was either selfish or a complete idiot; after all, it was our first child, and neither of us knew exactly what to expect when she went into labor. Does anyone really feel prepared for what's coming? Labor, I was told, is unpredictable; during her pregnancy, Vivian reminded me more than once that the process from initial contractions to actual birth could take more than a day—especially for the first child—and labors of twelve hours or more were not uncommon. Like most young fathers-to-be, I considered my wife the expert and took her at her word. After all, she was the one who'd read all the books.
It should also be noted that I wasn't entirely deficient on the morning in question. I had taken my responsibilities seriously. Both her overnight bag and the baby's bag were packed, and the contents of both had been checked and double-checked. The camera and video camera were charged and ready, and the baby's room was fully stocked with everything our child would need for at least a month. I knew the quickest route to the hospital and had planned alternate routes, if there happened to be an accident on the highway. I had also known the baby would be coming soon; in the days leading up to the actual birth, there'd been numerous false alarms, but even I knew the countdown had officially started.
In other words, I wasn't entirely surprised when my wife shook me awake at half past four on October 16, 2009, announcing that the contractions were about five minutes apart and that it was time to go to the hospital. I didn't doubt her; she knew the difference between Braxton Hicks and the real thing, and though I'd been preparing for this moment, my first thoughts weren't about throwing on my clothes and loading up the car; in fact, they weren't about my wife and soon-to-be-born child at all. Rather, my thoughts went something like this: Today's the big IT, and people are going to be taking a lot of photographs. Other people will be staring at these photographs forever, and—considering it's for posterity—I should probably hop in the shower before we go, since my hair looks as though I'd spent the night in a wind tunnel.
It's not that I'm vain; I simply thought I had plenty of time, so I told Vivian I'd be ready to go in a few minutes. As a general rule, I shower quickly—no more than ten minutes on a normal day, including shaving—but right after I'd applied the shaving cream, I thought I heard my wife cry out from the living room. I listened again, hearing nothing, but sped up nonetheless. By the time I was rinsing off, I heard her shouting, though strangely it seemed as though she was shouting about me, not at me. I wrapped a towel around my waist and stepped into the darkened hallway, still dripping. As God is my witness, I was in the shower for less than six minutes.
Vivian cried out again and it took me a second to process that Vivian was on all fours and shouting into her cell phone that I was IN THE DAMN SHOWER! and demanding WHAT IN THE HELL CAN THAT IDIOT BE THINKING?!?!?!? Idiot, by the way, was the nicest term she used to describe me in that same conversation; her language was actually quite a bit more colorful. What I didn't know was that the contractions that had been five minutes apart were now only two minutes apart, and that she also was in back labor. Back labor is excruciating, and Vivian suddenly let out a scream so powerful that it became its own living entity, one that may still be hovering above our neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, an otherwise peaceful place.
Rest assured, I moved into even higher gear after that, slapping on clothes without completely toweling off, and loading the car. I supported Vivian as we walked to the car and didn't comment on the fact that she was digging her fingernails into my forearm. In a flash, I was behind the wheel and once on the road, I called the obstetrician, who promised to meet us at the hospital.
The contractions were still a couple of minutes apart when we arrived, but Vivian's continuing anguish meant that she was taken straight to labor and delivery. I held her hand and tried to guide her through her breathing—during which she again offered various colorful sentiments about me and where I could stick the damn breathing!—until the anesthesiologist arrived for the epidural. Early in the pregnancy, Vivian had debated whether or not to get one before reluctantly deciding in favor, and now it appeared to be a blessing. As soon as the medication kicked in, her agony vanished and Vivian smiled for the first time since she'd shaken me awake that morning. Her obstetrician—in his sixties, with neat gray hair and a friendly face—wandered into the room every twenty to thirty minutes to see how dilated she was, and in between those visits I called both sets of parents, as well as my sister.
It was time. Nurses were summoned and they readied the equipment with calm professionalism. Then, all at once, the doctor told my wife to push.
Vivian pushed through three contractions; on the third, the doctor suddenly began rotating his wrists and hands like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat and the next thing I knew, I was a father.
Just like that.
The doctor examined our baby, and though she was slightly anemic, she had ten fingers, ten toes, a healthy heart and a set of obviously functioning lungs. I asked about the anemia—the doctor said it was nothing to worry about—and after he squirted a bunch of goop in our baby's eyes, she was cleaned and swaddled and placed in my wife's arms.
Just as I'd predicted, photos were taken all day long but strangely, when people saw them later, no one seemed to care about my appearance at all.
It's been said that babies are born looking like either Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi, but because the anemia lent a grayish pallor to my daughter's skin, my first thought was that she resembled Yoda, without the ears of course. A beautiful Yoda, mind you, a breathtaking Yoda, a Yoda so miraculous that when she gripped my finger, my heart nearly burst. My parents happened to arrive a few minutes later, and in my nervousness and excitement, I met them in the hallway and blurted out the first words that came to mind.
"We have a gray baby!"
My mother looked at me as though I'd gone insane while my father dug his finger into his ear as if wondering if the waxy buildup had clouded his ability to hear effectively. Ignoring my comment, they entered the room and saw Vivian cradling our daughter in her arms, her expression serene. My eyes followed theirs and I thought to myself that London had to be the single most precious little girl in the history of the world. While I'm sure all new fathers think the same thing about their own children, the simple fact is that there can only be one child who is actually the most precious in the history of the world, and part of me marveled that others in the hospital weren't stopping by our room to marvel at my daughter.
My mom stepped toward the bed, craning her neck to peer even closer.
"Did you decide on a name?" she asked.
"London," my wife answered, her attention completely devoted to our child. "We've decided to name her London."
My parents eventually left, then returned again that afternoon. In between, Vivian's parents visited as well. They'd flown in from Alexandria, Virginia, where Vivian had been raised, and while Vivian was thrilled, I immediately felt the tension in the room begin to rise. I'd always sensed that they believed their daughter had settled when deciding to marry me, and who knows? Nor did they seem to like my parents, and the feeling was mutual. While the four of them were always cordial, it was nonetheless obvious that they preferred to avoid each other's company.
My older sister, Marge, also came by with Liz, bearing gifts. Marge and Liz had been together longer than Vivian and I had—at the time, more than five years—and not only did I think Liz was a terrific partner for my sister, but I knew that Marge was the greatest older sibling a guy could have. With both my parents working—Dad was a plumber and Mom worked as a receptionist at a dentist's office until her retirement a few years back—Marge had not only served as a substitute parent at times, but as a sibling confidante who helped me wade through the angst of adolescence. Neither of them liked Vivian's parents either, by the way, a feeling that had coalesced at my wedding, when Vivian's parents refused to let Marge and Liz sit together at the main table. Granted, Marge had been in the wedding party and Liz had not—and Marge had opted to wear a tuxedo, not a dress—but it was the kind of slight that neither of them had been able to forgive, since other heterosexual couples had been allowed the privilege. Frankly, I don't blame Marge or Liz for being upset about it, because I was bothered, too. She and Liz get along better than most of the married couples I know.
While our visitors came and went, I stayed in the room with my wife for the rest of the day, alternately sitting in the rocking chair near the window or on the bed beside her, both of us repeatedly whispering in amazement that we had a daughter. I would stare at my wife and daughter, knowing with certainty that I belonged with these two and that the three of us would forever be connected. The feeling was overwhelming—like everything else that day—and I found myself speculating what London would look like as a teenager, or what she would dream about, or what she would do with her life. Whenever London cried, Vivian would automatically move her to her breast, and I would witness yet another miracle.
How does London know how to do that? I wondered to myself. How on earth does she know?
There is another memory from that day, however, that is all mine.
It occurred on that first night in the hospital, long after our final visitors had left. Vivian was asleep and I was dozing in the rocking chair when I heard my daughter begin to fuss. Before that day, I'd never actually held a newborn, and scooping her into my arms, I pulled her close to my body. I thought I'd have to wake Vivian, but surprising me, London settled down. I inched back to the rocking chair and for the next twenty minutes, all I could do was marvel at the feelings she stirred within me. That I adored her, I already knew, but already, the thought of life without her struck me as inconceivable. I remember whispering to her that as her father, I would always be there for her, and as if knowing exactly what I was saying, she pooped and squirmed and then began to cry. In the end, I handed her back to Vivian.
In the Beginning
I told them today," Vivian announced.
We were in the bedroom, Vivian had slipped into her pajamas and crawled into bed, the two of us finally alone. It was mid-December, and London had been asleep for less than an hour; at eight weeks, she was still only sleeping three to four hours at a stretch. Vivian hadn't complained, but she was endlessly tired. Beautiful, but tired.
"Told who what?" I asked.
"Rob," she answered, meaning her boss at the media company where she worked. "I officially let him know that after my maternity leave was up, I wouldn't be coming back."
"Oh," I said, feeling the same pang of terror I'd felt when I'd seen the positive pregnancy result. Vivian earned nearly as much as I did and without her income, I wasn't sure we could afford our lifestyle.
"He said the door was always open if I changed my mind," she added. "But I told him that London wasn't going to be raised by strangers. Otherwise, why have a child in the first place?"
"You don't have to convince me," I said, doing my best to hide my feelings. "I'm on your side." Well, part of me was, anyway. "But you know that means we can't go out to dinner as much and we'll have to cut back on discretionary spending, right?"
"And you're okay with not shopping as much?"
"You say it like I waste money. I never do that."
The credit card bills sometimes seemed to indicate otherwise—as did her closet, which bulged with clothes and shoes and bags—but I could hear the annoyance in her tone, and the last thing I wanted to do was argue with her. Instead, I rolled toward her, pulling her close, something else on my mind. I nuzzled and kissed her neck.
"Now?" she asked.
"It's been a long time."
"And my poor baby feels like he's about to blow up, doesn't he?"
"Frankly, I don't want to risk it."
She laughed and as I began to unbutton her pajama top, a noise sounded on the baby monitor. In that instant, we both froze.
And just when I thought the coast was clear and I let out a breath I didn't even know I'd been holding, the noise from the baby monitor began in full force. With a sigh, I rolled onto my back and Vivian slipped from the bed. By the time London finally calmed—which took a good half hour—Vivian wasn't in the mood for a second attempt.
In the morning, Vivian and I had more luck. So much luck, in fact, that I cheerfully volunteered to take care of London when she woke so that Vivian could go back to sleep. London, however, must have been just as tired as Vivian; it wasn't until I'd finished my second cup of coffee that I heard various noises but no cries, emanating from the baby monitor.
In her room, the mobile above the crib was rotating, and London was wiggly and full of energy, her legs shooting like pistons. I couldn't help but smile and she suddenly smiled as well.
It wasn't gas; it wasn't a reflexive tic. I'd seen those, and I almost didn't believe my eyes. This was a real smile, as true as the sunrise, and when she emitted an unexpected giggle, the already brilliant start to my day was suddenly made a thousand times better.
I'm not a wise man.
I'm not unintelligent, mind you. But wisdom means more than being intelligent, because it encompasses understanding, empathy, experience, inner peace, and intuition, and in retrospect, I obviously lack many of those traits.
Here's what else I've learned: Age doesn't guarantee wisdom, any more than age guarantees intelligence. I know that's not a popular notion—don't we frequently regard our elders as wise partially because they're gray and wrinkled?—but lately I've come to believe that some people are born with the capacity to become wise while others aren't, and in some people, wisdom seems to be evident even at a young age.
My sister Marge, for instance. She's wise, and she's only five years older than I am. Frankly, she's been wise as long as I've known her. Liz, too. She's younger than Marge and yet her comments are both thoughtful and empathetic. In the aftermath of a conversation with her, I often find myself contemplating the things she'd said. My mom and dad are also wise and I've been thinking about it a lot these days because it's become clear to me that even though wisdom runs in the family, it bypassed me entirely.
If I were wise, after all, I would have listened to Marge back in the summer of 2007, when she drove me out to the cemetery where our grandparents were buried and asked me whether I was absolutely sure that I wanted to marry Vivian.
If I were wise, I would have listened to my father when he asked me whether I was sure I should strike out on my own and start my own advertising company when I was thirty-five years old.
If I were wise, I would have listened to my mom when she told me to spend as much time with London as I could, since kids grow up so fast, and you can never get those years back.
But like I said, I'm not a wise man, and because of that, my life pretty much went into a tailspin. Even now, I wonder if I'll ever recover.
Where does one begin when trying to make sense of a story that makes little sense at all? At the beginning? And where is the beginning?
So let's start with this. When I was child, I grew up believing that I'd feel like an adult by the time I was eighteen, and I was right. At eighteen, I was already making plans. My family had lived paycheck to paycheck, and I had no intention of doing the same. I had dreams of starting my own business, of being my own boss, even if I wasn't sure what I was actually going to do. Figuring that college would help steer me in the proper direction, I went to NC State but the longer I was there, the younger I seemed to feel. By the time I collected my degree I couldn't shake the notion that I was pretty much the same guy I'd been in high school.
Nor had college helped me decide on the kind of business I'd start. I had little in the way of real-world experience and even less capital, so deferring my dream, I took a job in advertising for a man named Jesse Peters. I wore suits to the office and worked a ton of hours and yet, more often than not, I still felt younger than my actual age might indicate. On weekends, I frequented the same bars I did in college, and I often imagined that I could start over as a freshman, fitting right in with whatever fraternity I happened to join. Over the next eight years there would be even more changes; I'd get married and purchase a house and start driving a hybrid but even then, I didn't necessarily always feel like the adult version of me. Peters, after all, had essentially taken the place of my parents—like my parents, he could tell me what to do or else—which made it seem as though I was still pretending. Sometimes, when sitting at my desk, I'd try to convince myself: Okay, it's official. I'm now a grown-up.
That realization came, of course, after London was born and Vivian quit her job. I wasn't quite thirty years old and the pressure I felt to provide for my family over the next few years required sacrifice on a scale that even I hadn't expected, and if that isn't being a grown-up, I don't know what is. After finishing at the agency—on days when I actually made it home at a reasonable hour—I'd walk through the door and hear London call out, "Daddy!" and always wish that I could spend more time with her. She'd come running and I'd scoop her up, and she'd wrap her arms around my neck, and I'd remind myself that all the sacrifices had been worth it, if only because of our wonderful little girl.
In the hectic rush of life, it was easy to convince myself that the important things—my wife and daughter, my job, my family—were going okay, even if I couldn't be my own boss. In rare moments, when I imagined a future, I would find myself picturing a life that wasn't all that different than the one I was currently leading, and that was okay, too. On the surface, things seemed to be running rather smoothly, but I should have taken that as a warning sign. Trust me when I say that I had absolutely no idea that within a couple of years, I'd wake in the mornings feeling like one of those immigrants on Ellis Island who'd arrived in America with nothing but the clothes on their back, not speaking the language, and wondering, What am I going to do now?
When, exactly, did it all begin to go wrong? If you ask Marge, the answer is obvious: "It started going downhill when you met Vivian," she's told me more than once. Of course, being Marge, she would automatically correct herself. "I take that back," she would add. "It started way before that, when you were still in grade school and hung that poster on your wall, the one with the girl in the skimpy bikini with the big bahoonas. I always liked that poster, by the way, but it warped your thinking." Then, after further consideration, she would shake her head, speculating, "Now that I think about it, you were always kind of screwed up, and coming from the person who's always been regarded as the family screwup, that's saying something. Maybe your real problem is that you've always been too damn nice for your own good."
And that's the thing. When you start trying to figure out what went wrong—or, more specifically, where you went wrong—it's a bit like peeling an onion. There's always another layer, another mistake in the past or a painful memory that stands out, which then leads one back even further in time, and then even further, in search of the ultimate truth. I've reached the point where I've stopped trying to figure it out: The only thing that really matters now is learning enough to avoid making the same mistakes again.
To understand why that is, it's important to understand me. Which isn't easy, by the way. I've been me for more than a third of a century, and half the time, I still don't understand myself. So let me start with this: As I've grown older, I've come to believe that there are two types of men in the world. The marrying type, and the bachelor type. The marrying type is the kind of guy who pretty much sizes up every girl he dates, assessing whether or not she could be The One. It's the reason that women in their thirties and forties often say things like All the good men are taken. By that, women mean guys who are ready, willing, and able to commit to being part of a couple.
I've always been the marrying type. To me, being part of a couple feels right. For whatever reason, I've always been more comfortable in the presence of women than men, even in friendship, and spending time with one woman who also happened to be madly in love with me struck me as the best of all possible worlds.
And it can be, I suppose. But that's where things get a bit trickier because not all marrying types are the same. There are subgroups within the marrying types, guys who may also consider themselves to be romantic, for instance. Sounds nice, right? The kind of guy that most women insist they want? It probably is, and I must admit that I'm a card-carrying member of this particular subgroup. In rare instances, however, this particular subtype is also wired to be a people pleaser and when taken together, these three things made me believe that with just a bit more effort—if only I tried a little harder—then my wife would always adore me in the same way I adored her.
But what was it that made me that way? Was it simply my nature? Was I influenced by family dynamics? Or did I simply watch too many romantic movies at an impressionable age? Or all of the above?
I have no idea, but I state without hesitation that the watching too many romantic movies thing was entirely Marge's fault. She loved the classics like An Affair to Remember and Casablanca, but Ghost and Dirty Dancing were up there too, and we must have watched Pretty Woman at least twenty times. That movie was her all-time favorite. What I didn't know, of course, was that Marge and I enjoyed watching it because we both had massive crushes on Julia Roberts at the time, but that's beside the point. The film will probably live on forever because it works
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