OR DOESN'T SHE?
Avon Books • Trade Paperback
Passion. The kind of tear-your-clothes off, scream
your lungs out, crash into the furniture passion
that changes lives.
It's what Delilah wants. It's what she craves. It's what she fantasizes about whenever her disinterested husband's not around. Okay, so it occasionally makes her late for the school run and distracts her from the fact there’s no food in the fridge, but an elaborate fantasy life is a basic requirement for a fledging soap opera writer.
Lately, though, the oddest things have been happening in Delilah’s real life. First, she discovers a couple of skeletons rattling around in her husband’s closet. Then, she learns that the insolently sexy plumber who’s been fixing her pipes and starring in her daydreams is really an undercover FBI agent. And now all the clues seem to point to the conclusion that she’s the only person in New York City not carrying on a torrid affair. Which she intends to do something about. Or does she?
Because there's nothing more dangerous than acting on your secret desire.
I’m often asked, Where did you get the idea for this book? The answer is usually that I stole it. In the case of Does She or Doesn’t She? I stole it from James Thurber, who wrote a short story called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was turned into a film by the same title, starring Danny Kaye. In the story and the movie, Walter Mitty is a bit of a nebbish (a milquetoast, as my English mother-in-law would say) who loses himself in various daydreams of heroic adventure and romance.
I decided that my version would have a female protagonist, someone who had already been through the dating wars and was now trying to negotiate the dangerous peace of marriage. I imagined it as a book about the fantasy of romance versus the reality of a marriage that had lost its sense of romance. The working title of this book, not surprisingly, was The Secret Life of Delilah Levine.
Another question many people ask is, How much of this book is based on personal experience? The answer is, some of it’s cannibalized from my life, some of it’s scavenged from other peoples’ lives and some of it I concocted from scratch. I am intimately acquainted with the slice of New York life depicted in the novel, and I do think that almost all marriages go through a phase where the husband and wife live under one roof but occupy separate mental states.
Some marriages continue on parallel fantasy tracks for the long haul. Others find a new way to connect. And then there are the derailments. I won’t tell you which way Delilah’s story goes, but I assure you, it all ends well.
Genre Spotting Contest: In Delilah’s fantasy sections, I tried to cover most of my favorite genres, including historical romance, paranormal romance, romantic adventure, World War II espionage and the old TV series Bewitched. Okay, I know that’s not a genre, but hey, it’s a fantasy.
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Still Monday, November 30, (but feels like it should be another day already) 7:30 pm
Ford pulls back
from the kiss.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have done that.” He stares down, half blindly, at the woman in his arms.
“No,” she agrees. “You shouldn’t.” But she isn’t moving away, he can’t help but notice, and there is a suggestion of a smile in her voice. She is different in the dark, more certain of herself.
What would she be like in bed? He tries to imagine her naked, with her angular, long-limbed body. Elegant and awkward, he thinks, like a young, ethnic Katherine Hepburn. Could he bed a young Katherine Hepburn?
“Ford.” He looks down at her face in the shadows and knows that what he sees is surrender. Everything in him stills for a moment, tightens, begins to pulse. He bends his head to claim her lips again, then stops.
“No,” he says. “You’re married.” To a man who doesn’t seem to appreciate what he’s got, but still, Ford has his personal code. You don’t go poaching another man’s woman, not when the sacred words have been said, and especially not when there’s a child involved.
Ford lifts Delilah’s head so that he can see her eyes more clearly. “You want to explain that?”
No, not dead. Can’t kill Jason, even in a fantasy. He’s disappeared. No, then I’m a faithless bitch for cheating on him when he might be in danger. He’s leaving me. Which makes me appear pathetic. I don’t think he’s who he says he is. Yes, that works. A double agent. We were never legally married. Poor Sadie, can I do this to her? Yes, it’s my fantasy, it won’t really affect her…but how can I consummate my fantasy if my daughter is left with a strange imposter for a father?
This is a very long pause, and Ford begins to suspect there is something Delilah isn’t telling him. “Del. You know you can trust me, don’t you?”
Delilah looks up, eyes awash in tears, to the man who is lying atop her so intimately it feels as if they have already made love. “I know,” she whispers fiercely.
But what isn’t she telling him about her husband?
These are the things I don’t tell my husband:
1. I never actually completed my thesis in Dialogue as Poetry: Talking Tough in the Films of Howard Hawks.
2. When I was 18, I spent the money my parents gave me for a nose job on a debauched holiday in Amsterdam.
3. What I am thinking.
These are the things my husband doesn’t tell me:
1. Why he hasn’t slept with me for the past three years.
2. The exact location of his office is at R.B. International.
3. What he is thinking.
When I say Jason hasn’t slept with me for the past three years I mean, of course, that he hasn’t made love to me. We sleep together all the time. And I’m exaggerating about the three years: We did have sex once last June, when Sadie was over at Jason’s parents’ house for the weekend. And there may have been a time or two before that. But the poetic truth of it still stands: It’s been three years since Jason demonstrated any real enthusiasm for the marital act.
It is commonly accepted that if a man loses all interest in you sexually, this means he’s having an affair, but I don’t think that’s the case with Jason. First of all, he is neither more nor less irritable with me, and if he were passionately combining fluids with someone else, I would expect some change in mood. Secondly, he has always been something of a boy scout. Even when I first met him and he was overflowing with the kind of expansive flirtatiousness that encompassed me, the waitress, the couple sitting in front of us at the movie theater and the elderly taxi driver, Jason had a base level of unshakably bourgeois morality. Cheating is wrong, stealing is wrong, spraying cologne on semi-clean clothes so you can get away with one more day of wear is wrong, wrong, wrong.
But my last, and most convincing reason for believing my husband is not having an affair is this: Jason seems to have lost his antennae for sex. When we’re watching a movie and it’s clear that the hero and heroine are bickering because they are about to fall into bed together, Jason says, “I must’ve missed something. What are they arguing about?” If we’re at a cocktail party (rare event) and some twenty-two year old model saunters by, Jason does not track the passage of her firm, young flesh with his eyes. He does not notice when men flirt with me (a rarer event), even if the man in question is someone I used to date before Jason and I were married. (“That was Diego? God, Del, what were you thinking? The man only has one eyebrow, to go with the one opinion he kept repeating.”)
He doesn’t even notice my fascination with Ford. I’d like to think my thoughts don’t show on my face, but still, if Jason were having increasingly elaborate daydreams about, say, Hilda the housekeeper, I think I would suspect something.
Luckily, Hilda is sturdy and matronly. Unlike Ford of the pantherlike walk and slow and knowing grin.
Not that I go
around flirting with Ford, or he with me. I pretend not to
notice him, and Ford pretends not to notice
me noticing. It’s a very
intense relationship, and I can only take small doses of it before I have
to retreat to my study. Sometimes
he calls me in, though, and I get to see him lying flat on his back on my
closet floor like a gladiator chained for some decadent Roman lady’s
on the cold, will you? Damn, that’s not holding.” When
he tightens a bolt, his biceps fill me with an almost maternal
wish to hold
them, stroke them, rub them with lotion.
I might offer him a drink from time to time – lemonade, a soda? He tends to accept with a thanks-ma’am innocence that is just this side of irony. Mind you, it’s hard to tell what’s irony in that dry, deliberate voice. I get the feeling most people probably miss the joke. And maybe that’s not all they miss about Ford.
There’s a definite hint there of something tigerishly restless and hungry behind the lazy grin and the assumed air of nonchalance. Or maybe I just think he’s all that because of the exotica factor – those broad, high cheekbones, that golden tone to his skin, and, when his thick, dark hair isn’t obscuring half his face, there’s something about his eyes that suggests a hint of Genghis Khan lurking somewhere behind all that niceness.
Yes, I mean his eyes have a slightly almond shape, but I also mean there’s a touch of the barbarian there. I think Ford is capable of getting the job done, even if it means getting messy. Even if it means getting hurt.
Yet Jason does not seem to think there is the slightest possibility of my being attracted to the Fordly attributes being displayed almost daily in our bedroom.
So I do not think Jason is having an affair. I think if he were he would suspect me of having one, too: We tend not to think that other people are capable of things we wouldn’t do ourselves.
But then why doesn’t Jason invite me to his office? It might be as simple as Jason’s explanation that R.B. International has a corporate climate of slightly paranoid secrecy. Kleat Madigan, the chief financial officer, is ex-army, but nobody seems to know what part of the armed services Kleat belonged to (although there are rumors that he knows how to kill a man using only his two index fingers). Which may explain why Kleat (who actually looks a bit like Brando) carries such Apocalypse Now weight with his colleagues; who wants to argue with a guy who’s used to gutting the opposition? Not me – I met the guy at a business dinner last year and couldn’t decide whether he was checking me out in a guy-way or figuring out the quickest way to kill me if I turned out to be a threat during the soup course.
I became so nervous I forced myself to laugh at two entirely offensive jokes, one of which pertained to “right hand men” and seemed a veiled reference to Jason and, if I’m not imagining things, masturbation. Jason told me that this was just Kleat’s army-style humor, but I was hugely relieved when the evening ended and I was no longer within range of the man’s killing fingers.
Perhaps this is why my husband seems perennially tense these days: Jason, as one of R.B.’s chief patent attorneys, is closer than most to the company’s secrets.
Although why one more lemon scent or banana flavor should be such a big secret is beyond me. I mean, when you go around smelling your detergent or face cream or room freshener or margarine, do you really ever jump and think, Aha! This really is new and improved! As far as I can see, R.B.’s team of top chemists are all wasting their time. My lipsticks are no tastier now than they were in the eighties. My yogurts are no fruitier. And my shampoo is no more fragrant, despite advertisements suggesting a direct, pheremonal impact on the primitive reptilian centers of our brains.
As for what Jason’s thinking, I have my suspicions. I was a poet, after all (published in the Atlantic and the Utne Reader, briefly under consideration for a position in Bard College’s English Department) and much of poetry is really about letting yourself know what you know, about making intuitive connections.
What Jason is Thinking: A Poem
Here I am again. Nothing for
Dinner. What can she have been doing all day,
That she cannot take ten minutes to shop
For meat. Delilah! Why is last week’s empty milk carton
Still in the refrigerator? Why is there an untidiness of paper
All over the living room floor. Ouch!
That was a tack.
Doesn’t she know how deadly
These forces of chaos can be?
Hmm. I’ll have to work on that. Maybe I should tighten
the whole composition, make it something more formal, like a
sonnet or villanelle?
Oh, Christ, it’s six o’clock all ready. It was so peaceful with Sadie playing a game on my computer that I kind of went into a fugue state cutting up onions.
Jason comes in looking like one cranky cowboy. “What is going on in the living room? It looks like someone was having one helluva fight with your printer. And you’ve put papers all over my desk, which means I have no place to put my stuff.”
“Sorry. I was just getting started on dinner and I forgot to put my script away. I’ll do it in a second.”
Jason removes his hat, rubs his forehead. He’s an attractive man, really, even better now than when I married him. Age has roughened up that boyish, Wheaties-eating, blue-eyed face. “And were you doing something with pushpins? Because I just picked these up from the floor.” He holds out three red plastic pushpins in the palm of his hand.
This was the result of my reading “A Professional Organizer’s Top Ten Tips.” Following Tip #6, I’d tried numbering my soap opera scenes and then tacking them onto a big sheet of corkboard, but had gotten confused and wound up having Skylar collapsing hysterically onto Blackjack before the villainous Ruby had done anything even vaguely threatening.
I tend to do experimental without intending to.
“Del? Maybe you could clean them up before someone steps on them?”
As if on cue, from across the house, we hear a muffled cry. “Mom! I just stepped on something sharp!”
Jason gives me what my mother always calls The Look. “So, Del. What’s for dinner?”
I open my mouth and then realize I have forgotten to defrost the chicken. “Eggs.”
“Eggs? Scrambled eggs? An omelet? Eggs over easy?”
“Um, whichever, I could also do poached if…”
“No. Stop. I wouldn’t dream of interfering with this dinner you’ve got planned out. I’ll just let you surprise me.” Jason walks away, then stops just before leaving the kitchen.
“Del? You know how you keep asking to visit my office? Well, R.B. is having a big holiday office party. At first it was going to be employees only, but I kept arguing that my wife was never going to let me hear the end of it if I went without her. So, as a result, all the spouses are invited. Two weeks from today. Mark it on the calendar so you don’t forget and decide to cook a big dinner that night.” Then he smiles at me, to show he is just joking. The smile actually manages to reach his eyes.
Oh, great, another fun-filled evening with Kleat “I’ve killed men for less” Madigan. Well, at least it’ll be an excuse to get dressed up, wear some jewelry, pluck the bristle I’ve just discovered on my chin.
“Jason? I’m sorry about tonight. I was going to do a chicken stir-fry but then there was this birthday party that Sadie had and what with one thing and the other…”
At this precise moment Sadie limps into the kitchen. “Mommy forgot to give me my party invite,” she announces. “We still owe Chieko a present. I think I got a splinter in the living room.”
“Let daddy wash his hands, then I’ll see what’s what.”
Jason gives Sadie his hand and she hobbles off after him. “Mommy also said we might get a kitten from the pound. For Christmas.”
Jason looks pained. “Sadie, we’re Jewish.” Which reminds me, I forgot to light the Shabbat candles at sundown. I rummage in the cupboard and discover a wax frog and a Santa Fe Sensuality candle in the shape of a mushroom. At least I think it’s a mushroom.
“So we could get a kitten for Chanukah, then, okay, Daddy? Daddy? Daddy, stop looking at Mommy while I’m talking to you!”
I look up and meet Jason’s eyes. It doesn’t take a lot of poetic insight to figure out what he is thinking.
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The foregoing is excerpted from Does She or Doesn't She? by Alisa Kwitney. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022