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 secrets. But I truly believed I was the exception to such portents, and never once breathed the smallest mention of my nearly two decadelong secret to anyone. Not to my closest friends in my most intoxicated moments or to my boyfriend Peter in our most intimate ones. I didn't even discuss it with my mother, the only person who was there when it all went down, almost as if we took an unspoken vow of silence, willing ourselves to let go, move on. I never forgot what happened, 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 remembered those words that started it all, on that sweltering night so long ago: Hey, Marian. 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 finally seems over for good, and the balmy spring night is made warmer by the two bottles of Opus One we downed like water. It's one of the many things I admire about Peter—his fine taste coupled with his firm belief that life is too short for unexceptional wine. Unexceptional anything really.
"Ah! Finally. No slush," I say, happy to be wearing heels and a light cardigan after months of 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.
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. "Easy there, Champ," he said, as I took a victory lap around his kitchen. I laughed and made the fatal mistake of telling him that it was the ironic name of my childhood dog, a blind chocolate lab with a bad limp, thus sealing the deal. Marian was quickly relegated to mixed company, throes of passion, or 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. There is no place I'd rather be, which is often the way I feel when I'm with Peter. Then, moved by the wine and the weather and a whiff of his spicy cologne, I find myself blurting out, "So. When do you think we'll get married, anyway?"
At thirty-six and after two years of dating, the question has been on my mind for many months, the subject of endless speculation and discussion among my friends. But remarkably, 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 a potentially unsatisfying response. The mood of the night shifts perceptibly, and I feel his arm tense around me.
"Hey. I'm kidding," 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.
"Marian," he says, then pauses for a few beats. "We're so good together."
The sentiment is 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.
"I'm confused. Repeat the question?" he says, as if we're engaging in a variation of the "Who's on First?" comedy routine.
"Marriage. Us," I say, unwilling to give him the complete out. "Does it ever even . . . cross your mind?"
He takes a deep breath, then says, "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, noninformative nonanswer.
"Right," I say, feeling defeated as he glances into a darkened storefront, seemingly enthralled by a display of letterpress stationery and Graf Von Faber-Castell pens. I make a mental note to buy him one, having exhausted all other gifts in the what-to-buy-someone-when-they-have-everything category. Cufflinks, electronic gadgets, weekend stays at rustic New England bed-and-breakfasts.
"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, one of whom specializes in dating married men, I have never entertained so much as a wink or a drink from a man with a ring on his left hand. And before I met Peter, I 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. When it came to bad behavior, there was no such thing as mitigating circumstances, and one strike was all I would allow. In part, it was about principle and self-respect. But it was also a matter of pragmatism, of thirtysomething life engineering. I wanted a husband and children and there was no getting around the dreaded clock. I couldn't waste time with the wrong guy—someone with zero potential—and I refused to settle or delude myself. I had disdain for girls who panicked, grabbing the first acceptable mate they could find, as if they were playing a game of musical chairs. Of course, no one who surrendered in this fashion ever came clean and admitted that that's what they were doing, but it was always clear to me who fell in that camp, who viewed the wedding as the endgame rather than the starting point.
I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me. I was going to have a satisfying career. The right guy—and not just on paper. A family. It was how I approached my undergraduate years at Michigan, film school at New York University, and my entire career in television. I made plans and willed them to come true.
My reward and payoff, I believed, was Peter. I knew his name before I actually met him. Peter Standish, the esteemed television executive poached from HBO by my network, the would-be savior to turn around our struggling ratings. Technically, he was my boss, another one of my rules for whom not to date. However, the morning I ran into him at the Starbucks in our building lobby, I granted myself an exception, rationalizing that I wasn't a direct report. Besides, I had already made something of a name for myself as the producer of the hit series The Club, a smart, wry drama set at a country club in Nashville, Tennessee.
Of course at that point, as I stood behind him in line, eavesdropping as he ordered a "double tall cappuccino extra dry," the matter was completely theoretical, perhaps a little wishful thinking. But as I introduced myself and issued a brisk, professional welcome, I couldn't help but notice the elegant cut of his suit, the subtle cleft in his clean-shaven chin, and his thick but well-groomed eyebrows. I knew how old he was by the press release still sitting in my in-box— forty-four—but with a full head of hair and only a trace of silver in his sideburns, he looked younger than I expected. He was also taller and broader than I pictured, everything on a larger scale. Even his hand swallowed his cup of coffee.
"Thanks for the welcome, Marian," he said, with a charming but still sincere tilt of his head. Then, as we waited for both of our orders, he told me I was doing a hell of a job on my show. "It's got quite the cult following, doesn't it?"
I nodded modestly and said, "Yes. We've been lucky so far. But we can do more to expand our audience. . . . Have you ever watched it?" It was bold to put your boss's boss on the spot, and I knew the answer in his hesitation, saw that he was debating whether to admit it.
"No. I haven't. But I will tonight," he said. I gave him points for the truth and even more when he added, "And that's a promise."
"Well, at least you know it's on Thursday nights," I say, feeling a wave of attraction and suddenly sensing that it wasn't completely one-sided. It had been a long time since I had felt real chemistry, and although I never imagined anything would actually happen between us, it was reassuring to know I could feel that rush of attraction.
The next morning, to my delight, we both showed up at Starbucks at 7:50 a.m. once again, and I couldn't help but wonder if he had done it on purpose, as I had.
"So, what did you think?" I asked coyly—which wasn't my usual style. "Did you watch?"
"Loved it," he announced, ordering his same drink but this time opting for whipped cream. I felt myself beaming as I thanked him.
"Tight writing. And great acting. That Carrie England sure is a pistol, isn't she?" he asked, referring to our up-and-coming, quirky, redhead lead who drew comparisons to Lucille Ball. During casting, I had gone out on a limb and chosen her over a more established star, one of the best decisions I had ever made as a producer.
"Yes," I said. "She's got to win an Emmy at some point."
He nodded, duly noting. "Oh, and by the way," he said, an endearing smile behind his eyes. "I not only watched the show, but I went back and watched the pilot online. And the whole first season. So I have you to thank for less than four hours of sleep last night."
I laughed. "Afternoon espresso," I said, as we strolled to the elevator bank. "Works like a charm."
He winked and said, "Sounds good. Around four-thirty?"
My heart pounded as I nodded, counting down the minutes to four-thirty that day, and for several weeks after that. It became our new ritual, although we always pretended that it was a coincidence when we happened to be there at the same time.
Then one day, after I mentioned my random obsession with hats, a package from Barney's appeared by messenger. Inside was a jaunty beret with a card that read: To Marian, the only girl I know who could pull this one off.
I promptly called his direct dial from the network directory— delighted when he answered on the first ring and told his assistant, "I got this one."
"Thank you," I said, as soon as she was off the line.
"You're welcome . . . How about the card. Was 'girl' okay? I debated 'girl' versus 'woman'?" he asked, worried. His second-guessing confirmed that he cared—and that he could be vulnerable. I felt myself falling for him a little more.
"I like 'girl' from you," I said. "And I love the beret. Just glad that it wasn't raspberry."
"Or from a secondhand store," he deadpanned. "Although I would love to see you in it. And if it is warm . . ."
I laughed, feeling flushed, a churning in my stomach, wondering when—not if—he was going to ask me out.
Three days later, we flew to Los Angeles for the Emmys on the network jet. Although my show hadn't been nominated, we were getting a lot of great buzz and I had never felt better about my career. Meanwhile, Peter and I were getting some buzz of our own, a few rumors circulating, clearly due to our coffee break repartee. But we played it cool on the red carpet, and even more so at the afterparties, until neither of us could take it another second, and he sent me a text I still have saved on my iPhone: That dress is killer. You look amazing.
I smiled, grateful that I had not only overspent on a Alberta Ferretti gown, but had opted for emerald green instead of my usual black. Feeling myself blush, I turned to look in his direction as another text came in: Although it would look better on the floor.
I laughed and shook my head as he sent a final text: That was a joke. Although the truth. Meet me in twenty minutes. Room 732. No funny business. I just want to be alone with you.
Less than twenty minutes later we were in his room, finally alone, grinning at one another. I was sure that he'd kiss me immediately, but he showed a restraint that I found irresistible, increasingly more with every glass of champagne we ordered from room service. We grew tipsier by the hour as we talked about everything—television in general, our network, my show, gossip about actors, and even more drama among the executives. He told me about his thirteen-year-old son Aidan and his ongoing divorce proceedings. Despite the fact that he jokingly referred to his ex as "the plaintiff," he didn't make her out to be the villain, which I found to be a refreshing change from the few other divorcés I had dated. We talked about places we had traveled, our favorite hotels and cities, and where we hoped to someday go, both literally and in our careers. He asked great questions and gave thoughtful answers—and all the while, I knew. I just knew.
Then, as the California sky showed its first streaks of muted pink, he reached over and took my hand, pulled me onto his lap and kissed me in a way I hadn't been kissed for years. We said good night a few minutes later, then laughed, and said good morning.
Within a few weeks (and post-Scrabble date), we were an exclusive couple, a known item. One evening, we were even photographed dining together, our picture appearing in a blurb on Page Six with the caption: "Powerful Love Connection: TV Exec Peter Standish with Producer Marian Caldwell."
As the calls rolled in from my friends, I pretended to be some combination of annoyed and amused, but I secretly loved it, saving the clipping for our future children. Things seemed too good to be true.
And maybe they were, I think now, squinting up at him. Maybe this was as good as it was ever going to get. Maybe I was one of those girls, after all. Disappointment and muted anger well inside me. Anger at him, but more anger at myself for not facing the fact that when a person avoids a topic for over two years, it's generally for a reason.
"I think I'm going home," I say, after a long stretch of silence, hoping that my statement doesn't come across as self-pitying or manipulative, the two cards that never work in relationships—especially with someone like Peter.
"C'mon. Really?" Peter asks, a trace of sadness in his voice where I'd hoped to hear urgency. He abruptly stops, turns, and gazes down at me, taking both of my hands in his.
"Yeah. I'm really tired," I lie, pulling my hands free. "And I have brunch tomorrow with the girls. Remember?"
"Marian. Don't do this," he meagerly protests.
"I'm not doing anything, Peter," I say. "I was just trying to have a conversation with you. . . . And I'm tired."
"Fine," he says, exhaling, all but rolling his eyes. "Let's have a conversation."
I swallow my dwindling pride and, feeling very small, say, "Okay. Well . . . can you see yourself getting married again? Or having another child?"
He sighs, starts to speak, stops, and tries again. "Nothing is missing in my life if that's what you're asking. I have Aidan. I have you. I have my work. Life is good. Really good. But I do love you, Marian. I adore you. You know that."
I wait for more, thinking how easy it would be for him to appease me with a nonspecific promise: I don't know what I see exactly, but I see you in my life. Or: I want to make you happy. Or even: I wouldn't rule anything out. Something. Anything.
Instead, he gives me a helpless look just as two cabs materialize, one after the other, a coincidence to which I ascribe all sorts of symbolic meaning. I flag the first and force a smile. "Let's just talk tomorrow. Okay?" I say, trying to salvage what's left of my image as a strong, independent woman and wondering if it's only an image.
He nods as I accept a staccato kiss on the cheek. Then I slide in the cab and close my door, careful not to slam it, yet equally careful not to make eye contact as we pull away from the curb, headed toward my apartment on the Upper East Side.
Thirty minutes later, I'm changed into my coziest flannel pajamas, the kind I reserve for nights alone, feeling completely depressed, when my apartment intercom buzzes once.
My heart leaps with shameful, giddy relief as I nearly run to my foyer. I take a deep breath and buzz him up, staring at the door like my namesake Champ waiting for the UPS man. I imagine that we will make up, make love, maybe even make some plans. I don't need a ring, I will say, as long as I know that he feels the way I do. That he sees a life together.
But a few seconds later, I fling open my door to find not Peter, but a young girl with a heart-shaped face. She is slight, pale, and more pretty than not, and there is something about her that looks oldfashioned, although she is dressed like a typical teenager down to her oversized backpack and peace sign necklace.
"Hello," I say, wondering if she is lost, has the wrong apartment, or is peddling something. For some reason, it occurs to me that she could be a runaway, but she looks too smart, too together for that. "Can I help you?"
She clears her throat, shifts her weight from left to right, and asks in a small, thin voice, "Are you Marian Caldwell?"
"Yes," I say, waiting.
She nervously tucks her long, dark hair behind her ears, which are a little on the big side or at least at an unfortunate angle to her head, a trait I understand all too well, then glances down at her tennis shoes. When her eyes meet mine again, I notice their distinctive color—gray banded by a deep violet—and in that instant, I know exactly who she is and why she has come here. I know it in my racing heart and in every tiny hair now standing at attention on the back of my neck. I know it in my gut, which has almost always been proven right.
"Are you? . . ." I try to finish my sentence, but can't inhale or exhale, let alone speak.
Her pointed chin trembles as she nods the smallest of nods. "My name is Kirby Rose," she says, wiping her palms on her jeans, threadbare at the left knee. "And I think . . ."
I stand frozen, waiting for the words I have imagined countless times for the last eighteen years. Then, just as I think my heart will explode, I hear her say them:You're my mother.
* * *