The next day, Sam slept until six, which was very late for her. She glanced over at her husband. Matt didn’t get up until six-thirty, and when he was asleep, he looked peaceful and young. He was good in sleep. Not everyone was. Matt didn’t snore, drool, or mouth-breathe. Sam went down to the kitchen, and she could hear the coffee already brewing. Ally was at the kitchen table, earbuds in, studying her Latin.
Ally looked up, and Sam waved. Ally pressed pause on her music.
“Good morning,” Sam said, at once amazed and alarmed by how her child had become so self-sufficient. Ally pressed her lips together, shook her head slightly—she was, it seemed clear now, livid—and then she spoke:
“Go to your stupid house. I don’t care what you do. This is better anyway. I don’t want to live with you.”
“Or talk to you, or have anything to do with you.”
“Come on, Ally. I know this is upsetting.”
“This is not upsetting. You, you, are upsetting.”
Stupidly, Sam reached out to Ally, touched her shoulder. Ally whipped away from her.
In the awkward days that followed, Ally wouldn’t look at her or talk to her. Who was this girl, this tough, hard woman?
“Don’t push her,” Matt said, and Sam knew he was right, knew how it could backfire with Ally. The truth was that these days, Ally got along better with Matt than Sam. This had been true for a long time despite their being “as close as a mother and daughter could be” (as Sam once bragged to other adults). Sam thought she had escaped the rebellious teen thing, the whole “I can’t stand my mother” drama that other moms complained about. But then there was the fiasco at the hospital, and, even before that, things had begun changing once Ally hit puberty. Sam could feel Ally separate, almost like a membrane ripping, except Sam didn’t believe it. Ally became more distant, more self-sufficient, more of a mystery to Sam. Of course, whatever Sam had lost, Matt gained. Sam wasn’t an idiot; she knew these things change and change again. She worked to not be too hurt when she walked in on Ally and Matt snickering and no one could explain what was so funny. So now, when Ally shut her out, Sam relied on Matt to be her conduit. He was good with parenting, albeit less passionate than Sam. He was practical and constant. So Sam longed for her, but she was used to her mother love being unrequited. Even now she told herself this was temporary, that she and Ally would be close again when Ally was in college, just as Sam was close with her own mother, Lily. She persisted in believing that Sam and Ally would be like Sam and Lily, despite many differences. For instance, Sam had never had a falling-out like this with her own mother. Why draw analogies between herself and her daughter? Ally was not her. (Which was good, wasn’t it?)
Sam had to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
Sam waited for the closing, called her lawyer every day to speed it up. It was an all-cash transaction, after all. Matt pulled the money from their “emergency” savings. She thanked him, and he replied that it was her money too. After it had become clear that Sam was still leaving despite Ally’s anger, he had changed tactics. He became supportive, almost sentimental. Not a trace of anger or sarcasm in his tone. He even flirted with her and made her laugh. A performance of his capacity to be a generous, attentive husband even when wronged. Was this performance for her or for himself ? Yet his accommodations were seductive.
Sam had to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.
She tried to sleep in the guest room, but Matt begged her— begged her!—to stay in the bedroom. “These are our last nights together,” he said. They didn’t have sex, she made it clear that wasn’t happening, and he said, “I know.” She slept turned away from him, and he pressed his head against her shoulders. She could feel the warmth from his body behind her. His breath slowed and he fell asleep like a child. Warm bodies in bed felt totally different when they touched, even slightly. Anyone would find him appealing when he was asleep, which she realized was such an inadvertent slam that she snorted into the dark room. Matt didn’t understand that he was only one part of it; clearly Ally didn’t understand what Sam was doing. All Sam knew was what she knew. She no longer wanted to be in the suburbs (that had always been his preference, because he liked having land and trees and privacy, and she had thought she liked that too). Or, rather, she could no longer live in the suburbs. “Wanting” sounded volitional, and that was not what this was. She had always disdained people who left marriages by saying they had no choice, as if it were out of their hands. Yet that was how it felt to Sam: a force in motion that couldn’t stop once it started.
The morning walk-through before the closing elated her despite the April damp, the evidence of pests, the cold everywhere. There were so many papers to sign at the closing, and each time she signed or initialed, she felt her certainty harden. The key in her palm stunned her; the first step across the threshold, by herself, as the owner, gave her focus. Purpose.
Once they drew up the separation (but not the divorce, not yet, he insisted), he gave her an additional fifteen thousand dollars (dipping well into their savings but not Ally’s college fund). After the closing, she fixed the house enough for her to move in. She got the basics updated: plumbing and electric (even though the copper crisscross of porcelain knob-and-tube wiring in the attic appealed to her). Sam opened her own bank account with the little leftover money. She said she wanted nothing more, but he just laughed. “You pay our bills. You must know that your job won’t cover it.”
“I can be very frugal on my own.”
“It’s your money too,” he said. He kept saying that, but it didn’t feel like it to her. She agreed to a minimal monthly amount until they settled everything, just enough to cover her property taxes, utilities, and her food. He smiled, and there was a twinge of victory in the corners of his mouth. “Good. Let’s not worry about the rest now,” he said. It was truly helpful, she had to admit, that he was being so nice to her. Gentle about everything. But she knew Matt, knew how under the veneer of patience he was simply waiting her out. It was more than a little condescending that he viewed this as temporary, that he imagined that if he behaved, she would come home once it was out of her system. Sam was glad for the ease anyway.
When at last the house was minimally habitable, Sam took only her chest of drawers, two cane chairs, a round wood table, and some kitchen items. She had bought—with a delight that shocked her—a twin-sized mattress and frame. She set the bed in a corner of the living room until she fixed up a bedroom on the second floor. She could fall asleep looking at the fire. The plain iron frame by the window looked like a nun’s bed. Or a saint’s. Good. The mattress was quite expensive—a concession, a signifier really, of her faux poverty (faux po’/demi-dereliction), despite her renunciations and her almost ostentatious austerity. She liked to imagine herself in voluntary poverty (living among the involuntarily poor) like Dorothy Day. But her back hurt sometimes, and she couldn’t have a bad mattress and end up immobile at some point, pinned to the floor- boards moaning.
She thought of the old movie where the rich guy pretends to be poor and lives with the hobos in order to suffer and feel authentic things. It goes awry. (A really good movie, except for the ending, in which he has an epiphany about solving everything with laughter.) Sam didn’t want to be like that movie. The title of which lay behind some muggy hormonal veil, not brain fog so much as a muslin sheet she could almost see through.
As soon as the bed was installed, she mouthed goodbye to Ally’s closed bedroom door and left the house in the suburb for the last time. Three weeks after the closing and with much work not yet finished, Sam moved into the house in the city. Scarcely an hour had passed before the doorbell rang. Flowers sent by Matt. Oh for god’s sake. Dusty peach-colored peonies, her favorite. Her leaving had made him attend her, but he didn’t understand that wasn’t her intention at all. Sam just wanted to be alone in her house. ●
From Wayward by Dana Spiotta. Copyright © 2021 by Dana Spiotta. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.