Where We Belong


by Emily Giffin

1

marian

I know what they say about secrets. I’ve heard it all. That they can haunt and govern you. That they can poison relationships and divide families. That in the end, only the truth will set you free. Maybe that’s the case for some people and some secrets. But I truly believed I was the exception to such portents, and never once breathed the smallest mention of my nearly two-decade-long secret to anyone. Not to my closest friends in my most intoxicated moments or to my boyfriend, Peter, in our most intimate ones. My father knew nothing of it—and I didn’t even discuss it with my mother, the only person who was there when it all happened, almost as if we took an unspoken vow of silence, willing ourselves to let go, move on. I never forgot, not for a single day, yet I was also convinced that sometimes, the past really was the past.

I should have known better. I should have taken those words to heart—the ones that started it all on that sweltering night so long ago: You can run but you can’t hide.

* * *

But those words, that night, my secret, are the farthest things from my mind as Peter and I stroll down Bleecker Street following a lingering dinner at Lupa, one of our favorite restaurants in the city. After several stops and starts, winter seems over for good, and the balmy spring night is made warmer by the bottle of Barolo Peter ordered. It’s one of the many things I admire about him—his fine taste coupled with his firm belief that life is too short for unexceptional wine. Unexceptional anything really. He is too kind and hardworking to be considered a snob, shunning his lazy trust fund acquaintances who accomplished “nothing on their own,” but he’s certainly an elitist, having always traveled in prep school, power circles. I’m not uncomfortable in that world—but had always existed on the fringe of it before Peter brought me into his vortex of jet shares, yachts, and vacation homes in Nantucket and St. Bart’s.

“Ah! Finally. No slush on the sidewalks,” I say, happy to be wearing heels and a light cardigan after months of unseemly rubber boots and puffy winter coats.

“I know … Quel soulagement,” Peter murmurs, draping his arm around me. He is possibly the only guy I know who can get away with musing in French without sounding insufferably pretentious, perhaps because he spent much of his childhood in Paris, the son of a French runway model and an American diplomat. Even after he moved to the States when he was twelve, he was allowed to speak only French at home, his accent as flawless as his manners.

I smile and bury my cheek against his broad shoulder as he plants a kiss on the top of my head and says, “Where to now, Champ?”

He coined the nickname after I beat him in a contentious game of Scrabble on our third date, then doubled down and did it again, gloating all the while. I laughed and made the fatal mistake of telling him “Champ” was the ironic name of my childhood dog, a blind chocolate Lab with a bad limp, thus sealing the term of endearment. “Marian” was quickly relegated to mixed company, throes of passion, and our rare arguments.

“Dessert?” I suggest, as we turn the corner. We contemplate Magnolia’s cupcakes or Rocco’s cannolis, but decide we are too full for either, and instead walk in comfortable silence, wandering by cafés and bars and throngs of contented Villagers. Then, moved by the wine and the weather and a whiff of his spicy cologne, I find myself blurting out, “How about marriage?”

At thirty-six and after nearly two years of dating, I’ve had the question on my mind, the subject one of speculation among my friends. But this night marks the first time I’ve broached the topic with him directly, and I instantly regret my lapse of discipline and brace myself for an unsatisfying response. Sure enough, the mood of the night instantly shifts, and I feel his arm tense around me. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily a bad sign; it could just be poor timing. It even occurs to me that he could already have the ring—and that his reaction has more to do with my stealing his thunder.

“Oh, forget it,” I say with a high-pitched, forced laugh, which only makes things more awkward. It’s like trying to retract an “I love you” or undo a one-night stand. Impossible.

“Champ,” he says, then pauses for a few beats. “We’re so good together.”

The sentiment is sweet, even promising, but it’s not even close to being an answer—and I can’t resist telling him as much. “Sooo that means … what, exactly? Status quo forever? Let’s hit City Hall tonight? Something in between?” My tone is playful, and Peter seizes the opportunity to make light of things.

“Maybe we should get those cupcakes after all,” he says.

I don’t smile, the vision of an emerald-cut diamond tucked into one of his Italian loafers beginning to fade.

“Kidding,” he says, pulling me tighter against him. “Repeat the question?”

“Marriage. Us. What do you think?” I say. “Does it ever even … cross your mind?”

“Yes. Of course it does…”

I feel a “but” coming like you can feel rain on your face after a deafening clap of thunder. Sure enough, he finishes, “But my divorce was just finalized.” Another noncommittal nonanswer.

“Right,” I say, feeling defeated as he glances into a darkened storefront, seemingly enthralled by a display of letterpress stationery and Montblanc pens. I make a mental note to buy him one, having nearly exhausted gifts in the “what to buy someone who has everything” category, especially someone as meticulous as Peter. Cuff links, electronic gadgets, weekend stays at rustic New England B and Bs. Even a custom LEGO statue of a moose, the unofficial mascot of his beloved Dartmouth.

“But your marriage has been over for a long time. You haven’t lived with Robin in over four years,” I say.

It is a point I make often, but never in this context, rather when we are out with other couples, on the off chance that someone sees me as the culprit—the mistress who swooped in and stole someone else’s husband. Unlike some of my friends who seem to specialize in married men, I have never entertained so much as a wink or a drink from a man with a ring on his left hand, just as I, in the dating years before Peter, had zero tolerance for shadiness, game playing, commitment phobias, or any other symptom of the Peter Pan syndrome, a seeming epidemic, at least in Manhattan. In part, it was about principle and self-respect. But it was also a matter of pragmatism, of thirty-something life engineering. I knew exactly what I wanted—who I wanted—and believed I could get there through sheer effort and determination just as I had doggedly pursued my entire career in television.