A week passed before I understood the enormity of my situation, a week before I realized I was dead.
It was February, a bitter cold day in New York with a gunmetal sky, the kind of storm blowing in that would make even the most stoic northeasterner dream of sun, sand, and a beach that stretched on forever. Wearing a heavy wool suit, silk tie, and overcoat, I walked into my office on the thirty- fourth floor, the view of lower Manhattan blocked out by the falling snow. My secretary was on the phone, her sharp Brooklyn accent and polyester clothes at odds with the old- world, fine wood surroundings of the reception area. She snapped at the caller, something about having to go through her to get to me— the very reason I employed the no- nonsense older woman who wasn’t afraid of anyone.
She banged down the phone with a huff. “Pushy, pushy, pushy.”
I struggled not to smile.
When she saw me, she didn’t so much as blink. “Mr. Portman, there you are.” She handed over a stack of memos, giving me a brief, rapid- fire rundown of who had called. “And your mother stopped by earlier, said she needs to see you.”
My mother, the demanding, if beautiful, Althea Portman, had a tendency to think my sole job should be dealing with her.
Without a hitch in my step, glancing through the stack as I went, I didn’t bother to look up. “If she stops by again, tell her I quit. Tell her I got fired. Or better yet, tell her I’ve moved to Mongolia or the Australian Outback, someplace far away that with any luck isn’t reachable by phone.”
“Now, now, that’s just plain mean. She’s your mother.”
“Mrs. Carmichael, my mother requires mean.” I kept going, mentally itemizing which of the memos required my attention. “In fact, a woman like my mother demands mean.”
“For a man who can’t be more than, what, thirty- five, forty,” she called after me, “you sure are cantankerous.”
Just before I shut the door to my office, I glanced back, and this time I did smile.
She scoffed and turned away, though not before I caught a glimpse of her own amused smile.
“I’ll need a car to take me uptown at seven,” I told her.
With that, I tossed the stack of memos in the trash and shut the door.
An hour later I left my office at the Regal Bay investment firm. I was due to meet my wife at the Upper West Side Animal Clinic where she volunteered every Friday after work.
The first time I saw Emily I would have sworn she was born and bred in some place like Minneapolis or Milwaukee. It turned out she grew up in Manhattan, raised by a woman I’d had the good fortune never to meet. In her day, Lillian Barlow had been a noted and unfortunately vocal feminist, a woman who had taken a hard stand against what she called That pack of misogynist men whose goal in life was to oppress women.
One, I think her stance a sweeping generalization, not to mention melodramatic.
And two, given her stance, how a woman who had burned bras and been arrested for protesting the Vietnam War raised a daughter as open and trusting as Emily was anyone’s guess. How I ended up marrying the woman’s daughter was an even bigger mystery. But when Emily and I met nearly four years earlier, I was on the backside of a skiing mishap that had left me with a shattered leg that surgeons had reassembled with screws and metal pins.
This shouldn’t have hit me as hard as it did, but what can I say? For years I had wanted to run the New York City Marathon. I had dreamed of it. In some ways, I had counted on it.
After my leg ended up on the wrong end of my unfortunate fall, I was told that my days of training for anything that put significant strain on the leg, much less running the marathon, were over.
All this to say that in my own moment of spectacularly self- indulgent melodrama, when I met Emily I’d just had my first taste of mortality along with an overlarge serving of hunger to be something more than the man I was.
Of course Emily didn’t know any of that. The day I met her I was sitting in a conference room of the book publishing house, Caldecote Press, surrounded by the president, publisher, an editor, a lawyer, and Regal Bay’s own consigliore who scared even me— and I didn’t scare easily. We were there about a sticky issue regarding an upcoming book the publisher had on its fall list. Namely, a book about Regal Bay and some of its allegedly questionable activities. Victor Harken and I were there to make sure the book never saw the light of day. Rather than go the legal route from the onset, Victor wanted first to try and “convince” the publisher to see things our way.
Just before we began the meeting, Emily blew into the room like she was immortal, her long blond hair flowing behind her like a flag. She was delicate, not very tall, but somehow her presence filled the room. I had been half listening to Victor make small talk, but the minute I saw Emily everything else fell away.
Good news, bad news, depending on your point of view, I was nothing if not a connoisseur of women, and everything about Emily seemed a contradiction. She was as beautiful as any of the models I dated, her white blond hair long and loose, her eyes like an indigo sea. But combined with that intensity of energy and color, she wore a simple cream dress that hit barely above her knees. Not blue to highlight her eyes, or short to show off her amazing legs— like adding a constant in algebra to offset an equation. Though in math, the point is to solve for X. Emily seemed impossible to solve. I was intrigued.
“Ah, Emily,” the president said. “I was hoping you could join us.”
Introductions were made and I gathered that while Emily was relatively new to the company she had already developed a reputation for problem solving. That the president thought she could solve anything with Victor Harken made me smile. Though when I think back on it now, I realize that despite the contradiction of her, or maybe because of it, everything in the room shifted the minute she blew through the door.
When Victor gestured toward me, and said, “This is—” I cut him off. “Sandy Portman,”
I offered with a wry smile. “Just another cog in the corporate machine.”
Victor looked at me as if I had lost my mind, which perhaps I had. In actuality I was Alexander “Sandy” Vandermeer Regal Portman, a direct descendent of both the Vandermeer and Regal families, founders of Regal Bay, one of Wall Street’s oldest and most prestigious investment firms. Whether it was Emily’s counterbalanced elegance, or the easy confidence of someone who felt no need to impress, I’m not sure. All I knew was that for the first time in my life I didn’t want someone to know who I really was. We started in on the issue, Victor doing his best to intimidate and threaten, the president looking like he was concerned he’d end up with a horse head in his bed. But the women in the room hardly paid attention to Victor. They eyed me surreptitiously, weighing their possibilities, assessing. At least all the women did except Emily who didn’t seem to notice me at all.
No question I wasn’t used to disinterest, but it seemed more than that. Watching her, she seemed aware only of whoever was talking, as if she were listening in a way that most people never did.
When every idea and possibility had been suggested then discarded as not working for one or the other side, the president glanced over at her. “Emily, what do you think?”
She considered for a second, then turned to Victor like some blue- eyed David doing battle with a Bronx- born Goliath. “I’m not sure I understand what the problem is. No question you have the resources to tie Caldecote up with lawsuit paperwork for months if not longer, but eventually what ever you’re trying to hide is going to come out.” She tsked at Victor like he was a schoolyard bully getting caught playing rough on the playground. I doubted Victor had ever been tsked at in his life.
“So how about a compromise?” she added, then shot him a dazzling smile.
She was either crazy or fearless. Maybe both. I knew with a fair degree of certainty that while Victor hadn’t put a horse head in anyone’s bed, he was known for his unorthodox means of getting what he wanted. My great- uncle Silas Regal employed him for that very reason. But the consigliore was as caught off guard by the young woman as I was as she made her case with passion and an idealistic conviction that she and her little publisher would win.
“Either way,” she went on, “the fact is that while you’re tying us up with legal documents, both Regal Bay and Caldecote are going to end up in publishing eNewsletters, financial blogs, even traditional press. Good for us. Bad for you.” She shrugged and grimaced as if she were actually sorry.
Victor couldn’t seem to speak. I nearly laughed.
By the time Emily finished laying out her plan, Victor had agreed that not only would we not “waste money pursuing futile legal action” but we would give the lowlife business- journalist- turned- author access to Regal Bay higher- ups, as Emily put it, “to tell their side of the story.”
Great- uncle Silas was going to have Victor’s head. I would have been amused but just then Emily looked at me, finally, and everything changed. The world slowed as she studied me for what seemed like forever, then she smiled. As crazy as it sounds, sitting there with her smiling at me, I felt as if I could achieve anything. In her eyes I saw the man I had the potential to be reflected back. Broken legs and shattered dreams were forgotten and I had the distinct thought that she could make me whole. The feeling was deep and primal, as unsettling as it was nearly godly.
I decided then and there that I would have her.
It is a well- documented fact that most males of the species long to be great. Isn’t that why we admire superheroes when we are boys and moguls when we are men?
I was no different.
When I was young I wanted to be a basketball player, but while no one would accuse me of being short, I didn’t have the tall, lean build of a real player. If I was destined to sit on the bench, why bother? A few years later, I decided on rowing. I was smart and strong, and was being groomed by my prep school coach for the important position of stroke. But after a few months of trudging uptown to practice, I decided rowing was more trouble than it was worth.
Later, during college, I decided to be an artist, someone great like Picasso or Salvador Dali, larger- than- life men with voracious appetites. But this time my mother, a woman known as a great purveyor of all things art, said Portmans sponsored artists; we didn’t become them.
What most people didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t remember, was that my mother hadn’t always been a wealthy patron of the arts. The truth was, Althea Portman was an enigma to most people who knew her, a puzzle people had tried to piece together for years. But eventually the questions had been forgotten, and I knew my mother intended for it to stay that way. I rarely gave it any thought; the disconnected pieces of her were something I took in stride.
Though every once in a while our eyes would meet and I could see the question. Do you remember, I knew she wanted to ask.
But I was no fool. I always turned away, as did she, the question left hanging in the air, unspoken.
Unfortunately, my mother wasn’t one to hold her tongue on much of anything else, and on that unfortunate snowy February night that I left my office at Regal Bay, the night it all began, she and I had exchanged words. This time about my wife. Frustrated in a way that only my mother could make me, I sat in the back of a Mercedes sedan, one of the firm’s hired drivers taking me up Eighth Avenue in the swirling sleet and snow to meet Emily.
The drive took forever, the five lanes of traffic a sea of cabs, hired sedans, and people in SUVs from New Jersey heading north, the snowy street lined by the remnants of less glamorous Manhattan real estate now being encroached upon by the gleaming glass and steel of the midtown business district. An hour after leaving the firm, we finally arrived at the animal clinic on West Seventy- sixth, the narrow length lined with parked cars. The driver double- parked across the street, behind a utility van. When I didn’t immediately get out, he glanced at me over the seat back. “Isn’t this the address you gave me, sir?”
“Yes, yes. It is.”
Generally I wasn’t a distracted person, but that night I felt something I didn’t understand. I wrote it off as simple frustration after a long, snowy drive. I realize now that it was more than that, something more complex, less defined, a defiant and callous posturing in front of . . . what, the gods? What ever the case, I was charging forward, full speed ahead, to my own undoing. And Emily’s.
I got out of the car and buttoned my overcoat against the elements. Stepping around the front of the Mercedes, I was startled by a little wiry white- furred dog that leapt out and stood as if intentionally blocking my way. I tried to step around him but slipped on a patch of ice.
Steadying myself on the hood of the car, I shooed the dog away and kept going, snow and sleet coming down harder, the wind blowing, ice hitting my face. When I got to the right front edge of the Mercedes, a car turned onto the street, its headlights bouncing as the tires hit ruts in the freezing slush.
As the car roared closer, I saw that it was a taxi driven by someone who had lost all concern for the perils of driving in the snow. I took a step back, irritated that the cabbie planned to hurtle through the narrow space between the double- parked cars. Then just before the cab reached the Mercedes it happened. The little white dog reappeared and stepped into the street.
The cab driver hit the brakes and swerved, fishtailing back and forth, sliding this way, overcorrecting that way, until the yellow taxi careened into the back of the Mercedes.
The thick, falling snow muffled the crash, making the impact feel less destructive.
Then silence. There was a moment when I was certain I could hear the snow falling, feel a strange sort of peace.
All in all, the accident wouldn’t have caused too much of a problem if I hadn’t been standing at the front of one vehicle and an unfortunate five or so feet behind another. Something about thrust and velocity, mixed with angle of trajectory, even over relatively slow speeds and short distances, can make for a very dangerous combination. The long and short being that the cab hit the back of the Mercedes, jamming it forward into me, thrusting me down with such velocity and at such an angle that I crashed over like a domino, no time to break my fall. My head slammed against the fender of the van, traumatizing my brain so intensely and fracturing my spine so deeply that there was never a chance to recover. In seconds I was standing next to my body, no longer cold, merely stunned that the mess on the ground was actually me.
I watched in stunned paralysis as the driver dialed 911, tried to resuscitate my body, then called his dispatch who called the firm. No one called my wife.
I had never been one to panic, though I had never stood on a snowy street before watching someone work to revive my body. But when I tried to move and couldn’t, panic spiked through me. I gasped for air, but couldn’t do that either.
They say that when your life hangs in the balance, your past fl ashes before you. But it wasn’t friends or events from my childhood I remembered. I didn’t think of my parents.
I only thought of one thing.
Her name burst out of me, burst out of my mind, as if somehow she could fix this, could solve this problem. But there was no sound, nothing, as if nothing of substance was left of me to save.
I hadn’t known Emily for more than a week the first time I pulled her close. With our lips nearly touching, I whispered, “Fall in love with me. I dare you.”
She did fall for me, though since then I have wondered if it was the dare that set me up to fall.
My mother used to tell me that life could change in an instant, a line drawn in the
sand separating before from after, altering you completely. Was that really true?
Could a person be changed in an instant? Or did a crack already have to exist
in the ice, the beginnings of a change we simply refused to see?
—excerpt from My Mother’s Daughter
Everyone has a story but I was never interested in telling my own. I was an editor of books, not a writer. I loved to find sense in someone else’s chaos, uncover the intent of a sentence or paragraph that only hinted at a truth. At least that was how I felt until I met Sandy Portman. The first time I saw him my world tilted. Ridiculous, I know, but seeing him that first time jarred me so deeply that I had to turn away, like turning away from looking directly at the sun, and pretend I hadn’t noticed him at all.
It had nothing to do with the fact that he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. His face was a strike against him. I fell in love because there was something in his eyes that was at odds with his physical beauty. Sandy Portman drew me in, like the draft of a manuscript where perfectly constructed sentences hinted at but didn’t yet reveal a deeper truth. And when he pulled me close and smiled at me the first time, a crooked smile on his perfect face, hinting at a bit more of his truth? Well, I was lost.
My name is Emily Barlow, and I had never been good at sensing trouble. I didn’t need to be. I made lists, mapped out plans, then moved forward with a calm certainty that everything would work out. Unshakable faith. Bone-deep belief. Call it what you will. I stepped into any situation with the calm conviction that no matter what, I would survive.
Perhaps that was my mistake. Then again, perhaps that’s what would save me.
That morning, the day everything began, I woke with what I now can only call a premonition that my world was about to shift. But I didn’t recognize the feeling for what it was. I ignored it.
It had been snowing all night, snow on top of snow during one of the worst winters New York City had seen in a decade. It was Friday, and when I got to work at Caldecote Press almost no one was there, kept away by the storm, safe in houses reached only through bridges and tunnels, or in apartments on the island of Manhattan that climbed up floor after floor into the mottled gray clouds until the buildings disappeared. At noon, I headed home. The animal clinic had closed due to the weather, and I tried calling Sandy to let him know I would meet him at the apartment. He didn’t answer, and his voice mail was full. I’d left a message with his secretary for him to call me, but I never heard back.
We lived in the Dakota, a hundred- and- twenty- year- old building on the Upper West Side, and when I got home I worked, first on a manuscript that had come in early, then on the guest room I had been redoing for several weeks. I had painted the walls a pale yellow, with white crown molding, and a border of lavender, green, and blue flowers that I was painting myself, each delicate stroke like a line of a psalm as I sat at the top of the ladder, the impossibly high ceilings seeming to reach up to God. For the last two years, I had put every extra cent I had into the apartment. While my husband had a great deal of money, I did not. But I gave that no thought, pouring my heart and soul into the old but enchanted residence that had been little more than a dusty museum when Sandy lived there alone.
I had ripped down ancient wallpaper, torn up broken bathroom tile, replaced outdated appliances, entwining myself in a place that represented everything I had been working toward my entire life. A home with a husband and children, Sunday dinners and friends. A life of work and family, the lines filled in with love, colored by years steadily passing. A life so different from the one I led with my mother where we moved from one apartment to the next, uptown, downtown, Alphabet City. We even did a stint in Chinatown, where plucked chickens and ducks hung in steamy shop windows like ornaments on a tree.
Over the years I learned to guard my heart, didn’t let myself become attached to people or places despite my dream of having both. But the day I met Sandy in the Caldecote conference room, something inside me opened up. As everyone was leaving the meeting, Sandy stopped me. He didn’t notice, or perhaps didn’t care about, the glances others gave us. He looked only at me, his lips hiking up at one corner, turning what would have been a wicked smile into something boyish and playful. “Come away with me,” he said. “Right now, before everyone gets wise to us and reminds me of schedules and broken legs and all the things you make me forget.”
I must have given him a strange look because his smile widened and he added, “At least let me take you someplace for a drink. Then you can tell me all about why you downplay your amazing looks, and I’ll tell you all the reasons why I’m falling for you.”
He startled me, but I didn’t show it. “Do lines like that really work in your world?”
He laughed out loud. “They do.” Then that smile again, this time bordering on sheepish, his hazel green eyes flashing. “Hard to believe, huh?”
My guess was that it wasn’t the lines that worked, but his looks, his easy charm. This was a man used to getting his way without having to bargain or even ask.
I smiled despite myself. “One, I have nothing to tell, and two, you don’t know half the reasons why I’m worth falling for.”
This time he was surprised, but he recovered quickly. “Then I’ll take notes; you can dictate. It will give me an excuse to keep you out all afternoon and turn a drink into dinner.”
I just shook my head and stepped around him. But at the door I turned back. “Dinner. After work. My choice of restaurant.”
He cocked his head. “Ever the negotiator. But fine, I’ll meet you in the lobby at seven.”
“Make it seven- thirty.” I started to leave.
“Do you always win?”
My smile softened. “Does anyone?”
He studied me for a second, then told me I should have been named Diana after the Huntress or Helen after the woman from Troy. “Emily is too soft, too much like that boring cream dress you’re wearing. Neither does you justice.”
I raised a brow. “For someone who doesn’t know the first thing about me, you have a lot of opinions.”
What I didn’t say was that in every woman there is an Emily just as in every woman there’s a Helen of Troy. It depends on which part is nurtured. I’d had no choice but to be strong. And didn’t the hardness of strength come when the softness underneath was a threat?
I would have written him off as yet another good- looking guy who used his charm to get what he wanted. But then his brow furrowed. “On second thought, I bet there’s an Emily in there somewhere. You just keep her hidden.”
My breathing grew shallow. Somehow this seemingly all- surface guy understood.
He walked past me through the doorway, stopping just long enough to tuck a single errant strand of hair behind my ear. “See you at seven- thirty,” he said.
I had just finished putting the final touches on the painted border when my BlackBerry rang.
I clattered down the ladder, paintbrush still in hand, lavender paint splattered on the old shirt I wore to protect my clothes. When I glanced at the clock I was surprised to see how late it was. I’d have to hurry to get cleaned up before Sandy got home.
“Hello,” I said on the fourth ring.
But it wasn’t Sandy. It was Birdie Baleau, a woman who had recently moved to New York from Texas, and was like no New Yorker I had ever met. We had become fast friends almost instantly.
“Congratulations!” Birdie squealed on the phone, like we were still in middle school. “I just heard about your promotion to senior editor!” I fell into a chair and kicked my feet up on the desk as we talked and laughed, excited over this new phase in my career. When I got off the phone, I tried my husband again, but his voice mail was still full.
I showered, then poured myself a glass of wine, found my iPod and cranked up a crazy mix as I danced through the apartment. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys. Harry Nilsson’s “The Puppy Song.” Adam Lambert’s “No Boundaries.”
Then “Broken” by Life house.
I didn’t remember downloading the song to my playlist. But I closed my eyes and sang to the century- old walls, twirling, arms wide open, head thrown back. My life felt full, my career soaring, a simple happiness wrapping around me as if there could be no stopping me.
An hour later, Sandy still hadn’t shown up. I told myself there was no reason to worry. He had been late before. But another hour passed, then two, and still Sandy hadn’t called.
At some level had I known? Had I remembered the premonition, had I thought of the song, but refused to assign meaning to it? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that I danced and sang in my bright yellow room while snow came down outside the window like thick white curtains that blocked out the view.