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An excerpt from If Only

If Only

If Only We’d Bought This House…

Ruth Singer knew chaos theory. Or, at the very least, she knew chaos. Chaos was her life. Chaos was her world. Chaos was her middle name.


As she understood it, what chaos theory boiled down to was: if a butterfly in Botswana flapped its wings, it could cause a tornado in Arkansas. Her father had educated her on this concept when she’d been a child. It had left her wondering what Botswana’s butterflies had against trailer parks in rural America, since that seemed to be where tornadoes touched down with tragic frequency. But she hadn’t questioned her father. For one thing, arguing with her parents, especially while they were enjoying their daily cocktail hour—which, in her mother’s case, usually lasted about four hours—was futile. For another, her father had been a mechanical engineer, so she’d assumed he was an expert when it came to butterfly wings and funnel clouds.


She was a long way from her childhood. In fact, she was within shouting distance of her seventieth birthday, an age which had seemed positively ancient to her when she’d been young enough to believe that her father knew what he was talking about when he’d lectured her on butterflies and chaos.


These days, sixty-eight years old didn’t seem old at all. Would an old person take regular five-mile walks for exercise? Ruth did; therefore, she couldn’t possibly be old. To keep chaos at bay, she took her walks in any weather that didn’t require her to wear waders or mukluks. Now that she was retired, she could walk every day, and she walked a different route each morning so she wouldn’t grow bored. Her Wednesday route led her past the Victorian she and Barry had almost purchased thirty-two years ago, when they’d moved to Brentwood. Every Wednesday when she passed the house, with its gray scalloped shingles, its wine-red gingerbread trim, its steeply sloping roof and its circular turret on the second floor, she contemplated how different her life would be if they’d bought this house instead of the neatly rectangular colonial on Jefferson Road.


One decision—that house, not this house—had changed everything, the way the quiver of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado half a world away.


She’d loved the Victorian when they’d toured it. She’d loved the oddly shaped rooms, especially the round turret room, which she would have claimed as her own private retreat, a hideaway filled with overstuffed chairs and books and a “Do Not Enter” sign on the door so the kids wouldn’t bother her when she was secluded inside. She’d loved the window seats in the living room and the wainscoting in the dining room and the brick fireplace in the den. The house radiated charm the way the July sun radiated heat. Which had been Barry’s primary complaint.


“It doesn’t have central air,” he’d complained.


“You really don’t need air conditioning in Massachusetts,” Patti, their excessively chipper real estate agent had assured them.


I need air conditioning,” Barry had insisted. Years later, he would brag to Ruth about his wisdom and foresight in anticipating global warming. Thanks to climate change, everyone needed air conditioning in Massachusetts now.


“We can put in some window units,” Ruth had said.


“Window units aren’t the same as central air. And the garage isn’t attached. You want an unattached garage? Every time it rains, you’ll get soaked racing from the garage to the house. Every time it snows, you’ll get buried. Or you’ll slip on the ice and crack your head open.”


“We could build a breezeway,” Ruth had suggested. She’d had no idea just how difficult building a breezeway might be, but the door from the garage lined up pretty well with the door to the mudroom off the kitchen.


“You want to buy this house and then redo the whole thing? Doubling the cost? That’s crazy.”


Maybe it would have been crazy. But she would have had that round turret room. And she and Barry wouldn’t have wound up buying their colonial—new construction, attached garage, central air—across the street from the Jarvises.


Everything would have been different if Maddie had never met Kyle Jarvis.




If only we’d bought this house instead…


A sweet little girl named Janet lives in the house across the street. No, not Janet. People don’t name their daughters Janet anymore. But a simple, solid name, not a trendy name, not a cool name, because this little girl isn’t trendy and cool.


This girl—Nancy? Mary? Anne—yes, Anne! Anne is Maddie’s age, and they’ve been best friends from the day we moved in. Anne is smart and studious and just mischievous enough to hold Maddie’s interest. I love watching them when they’re together, completing each other’s sentences, swapping T-shirts and friendship bracelets, competing to see whose life is more worthy of complaint—who has more chores, who receives smaller allowances, whose mothers are more oppressive. (Anne’s mother—Marcia, yes, that’s her name—Marcia and I compare notes on the conversations we overhear. We regularly get together for glasses of wine or iced tea and laugh at our fierce, histrionic, adorable daughters.)


Anne and Maddie sit together every day on the school bus. This is a known thing; other children sit near them and talk to them, but the only time the bus seat next to Maddie is available is when Anne has to miss school with strep throat or an ear infection. When the girls get home from school, they walk together from the bus stop on the corner, stand in the street talking for a few minutes, and then enter their respective houses to do their homework and practice their musical instruments. Maddie plays the piano, Anne the violin.


Over time, they start playing duets together, always at our house because it’s a lot easier to carry a violin across the street than to push a piano across the street. I sit in the turret room above the living room, where the piano is located, and listen as they play together, earnestly, intensely, beautifully.


When they’re done playing, I emerge from my cozy round hideaway, descend the stairs, and prepare a plate of sliced apples, or crackers with peanut butter, and the girls carry their snack out to the porch, where they nibble and talk, solving the problems of the world or, at least, the problems of Brentwood Middle School.


They discuss the books they’ve read. They complain about their teachers. They polish each other’s nails and debate which boys in their classes are the cutest. Years pass, but their friendship only grows stronger and sturdier. In high school, they double-date. They retreat to one or the other’s bedroom so Marcia and I can no longer eavesdrop on their conversations—but that’s all right. They’re entitled to their privacy, and Marcia and I are entitled to our glasses of wine.


When they’re eighteen, Maddie and Anne double-date to the senior prom, posing with their courteous, clean-cut prom dates, first on Anne’s smaller porch and then on our larger one, while Chuck and Marcia and Barry and I snap photos of them. Several other prom couples join them, but Maddie and Anne are clearly the queens of the group, the prettiest, the savviest, the most confident and least giggly. They have a lot to celebrate on prom night. They’ve both gotten into their first-choice colleges— Oberlin for Maddie, Middlebury for Anne. Next year will be the first time since we bought this house that they’ll be apart, but—lucky for them—they’ve got email and phones and they’ll stay in constant touch, even as they expand their horizons and welcome more friends into their lives.


They do well in college. They graduate. They land challenging, well-paying jobs in Boston and share an apartment like the one Barry and I had in Brighton, only without the cockroaches. They date wonderful men, and when it’s time to settle down, they’re bridesmaids in each other’s weddings. Chuck and Marcia attend Maddie’s wedding, of course, and Barry and I attend Anne’s. We talk about how each young woman is like an extra daughter to us, the twins we share.


They settle in the Boston suburbs, not in Brentwood but just a couple of towns away, and give birth to magnificent children. Anne’s children call Maddie “Auntie Maddie,” and Maddie’s children

call Anne “Auntie Annie.”


Barry and I contemplate downsizing, selling the Victorian and moving into a condo community for active seniors. Except that we don’t feel like seniors, and I don’t feel like giving up the turret room. And we spent all that money to build the breezeway between the garage and the mudroom, and the daffodils we planted have multiplied through the years so they create a solid row of yellow, like a stripe of bright sunshine underlining the porch.


All our children loved this house. Barry started loving it once we retrofitted it with central air conditioning, and he’s loved it ever since. Buying it was the right thing to do. It was the perfect launching pad for all three of our children. Especially Maddie.


So we stay. Marcia and I sit on the porch the way Maddie and Anne used to, nibbling on cheese and fresh strawberries and sipping our wine, swapping memories instead of bracelets. Our friendship is as solid as that of our daughters. I will not leave this lovely house. It suits me too well. And it never really feels empty, with our children and their children visiting all the time. The grandchildren love the turret room, but they’re only allowed to visit. It’s my room. I can close the door whenever I like.


And I do.




But Ruth and Barry had bought the colonial on Jefferson Road.


It was a nice enough house, she supposed. Comfortable. Thoughtfully laid out, with no surprises, no unexpected alcoves, no quirky little nooks. No window seats or round rooms. Well insulated. Well applianced. Well air-conditioned. All in all, a very practical, sensible house, its design the antithesis of chaos.


She couldn’t complain. Barry had insisted that they move to Brentwood because she was running the music education program in Brentwood’s three primary schools. She had been so touched that he wanted her to have an easy commute. Only later did she realize that her easy commute benefitted him as much as her. “You’ll be there to greet the kids when they get home from school,” he’d pointed out. “You’ll be close by if they have an emergency.”


They had emergencies. Children always did. A gym-class injury, a stomach bug, a wardrobe crisis. Ruth could handle whatever catastrophe befell her children, because her job kept her in town, only minutes from the emergency’s ground zero, able to find someone to cover for her so she could race to the rescue with a forgotten homework assignment or a misplaced lunch bag. She recalled the time Noah, then in second grade, had fallen into a mud puddle at recess—by accident, he’d sworn, though she didn’t believe him—and his teacher had contacted Ruth and asked her to bring Noah a clean shirt, because he couldn’t spend the next two hours in a wet, stained garment. Apparently, second graders could not absorb their arithmetic and penmanship lessons if they were dressed in something wet and stained.


At least she’d never had to run any of her children to the emergency room during school hours. She’d taken Noah to the ER when he’d broken his ring finger playing basketball in the Saturday morning league, and Jill one evening when she’d developed a suspicious cough that had turned out to be a mild case of pneumonia. And Maddie the summer she’d gotten bitten by a brown recluse spider which had, in fact, not been a brown recluse spider, or for that matter, any kind of spider. Ruth had researched brown recluse spiders after she and Maddie had gotten home from the ER, and she’d learned that they didn’t live in Massachusetts. But Maddie had insisted her bite was from a brown recluse spider because Kyle Jarvis had told her it was. He’d scared the hell out of her, and she’d relished having the hell scared out of her by him. Kyle’s melodramatic flare had found the perfect audience in Maddie, especially when she was not just the audience but the star.


As it turned out, Maddie’s affliction had been a black-fly bite, itchy but requiring little more than calamine lotion and a dose of Benadryl. And for that, Ruth had had to rush Maddie to the ER. If she and Barry had bought that Victorian house, Anne, the sweet little girl in the Cape across the street, would never have alarmed Maddie by claiming that her bite had come from a venomous spider. Anne would have supplied the calamine lotion herself, and then suggested that they distract themselves by biking down to the playground near the Community Center and seeing who could kick the highest on the swings.




Sometimes when Ruth walked, she listened to an audiobook or a podcast. Sometimes she stewed about an article from the morning newspaper and wrote a letter to the editor in her mind. Today she spent at least forty-five minutes of her hour-long walk ruminating on how her life would have been different if she and Barry had bought the Victorian. Less chaotic? No. There were enough butterflies in the world to create chaos regardless of where she chose to live. But she might have been more patient, more tolerant of the chaos. She might have been a better mother.


In the fifteen minutes of her walk thinking about something other than the house, she contemplated how to spend the rest of her day. This was the first autumn of her retirement, and she still hadn’t found her groove. She was beginning to suspect that retirement didn’t have a groove. It did give her the time to take her five-mile walks every day, instead of just on weekends and holidays or in the evenings during Daylight Savings Time, when the sky remained light after dinnertime. This, in turn, meant she could walk past the Victorian every Wednesday, and think about how much better a mother she would have been if she’d raised her children there.


Entering her own house, she was briefly startled to find Rainie in the den, watching a streaming episode of a TV series about a prison in which approximately fifty percent of the dialogue consisted of the word fuck. Ruth wasn’t a prude. She knew the word. She herself used it on occasion. But she believed dialogue in movies and television shows ought to be more inventive. Figuring out ways to use fuck as a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an interjection was inventive to a point, but really, the show’s writers could have done better. Rainie was only fourteen. She didn’t need to hear all that swearing.


“I forgot you were home,” Ruth said, peering through the doorway between the kitchen and the den.


“Teachers’ enrichment day,” Rainie said. Even though the early November morning was not particularly hot, she wore a short-sleeved cotton T-shirt and athletic shorts, her long, thin legs protruding from the hems of the shorts. Her toenails were painted black and her hair featured several pink streaks.


“Teachers’ enrichment day.” Ruth sighed. “That’s as close as teachers ever get to being rich.” She was thirsty from her walk, but she’d be damned if she drank any water before she stood on the scale. She always weighed herself when she arrived home from her walk—naked, after peeing and before stepping into the shower.


If she drank water before she climbed onto the scale, she might weigh an ounce or two more. Her scale registered only pounds, not ounces, but if by going thirsty for an extra few minutes she could coax the needle a fraction of an inch further to the left, she would happily forgo hydration. Ruth’s mother had often told her that getting fat was the worst tragedy that could befall a woman. Ruth knew that wasn’t true, but it was hard to tune out a mother’s nagging, even if that nagging reached Ruth from beyond the grave. Years after her mother’s death, Ruth still monitored every fluctuation on the bathroom scale.


Before she could head for the stairs, Rainie sprang off the sofa in the den and entered the kitchen. “Grammy? Can we talk?”


“Of course. But first, I want to say that show you were watching relied way too much on curse words. I hope you noticed the weakness of the writing.”


Rainie laughed. “Oh, I’m so shocked! All those dirty words! I’m gonna have a heart attack!” She clapped her hands over her ears.


Ruth rolled her eyes. “I’m just saying, there are better written shows on TV. Even better written shows set in prisons. And anyway, it’s a nice day. You shouldn’t spend it inside, watching bad TV.”


“I’m getting together with Kelsey and Nina later today. We’re doing something. We haven’t decided what.” Rainie swung open the refrigerator door, pulled out a bag of green grapes, and popped one into her mouth.


Ruth was really thirsty. She wanted to drink some water, and she wouldn’t do that before stripping and standing on the scale, which wouldn’t happen until Rainie had gotten whatever was on her chest off it. “You said you wanted to talk,” Ruth prompted her, hoping she didn’t sound as impatient as she felt.


“Oh, right.” Rainie took a moment to refresh her memory. She chewed a grape, swallowed it, and plucked another grape from its stem. “After Mom marries Warren, I want to stay here.”


Ruth opened her mouth and then shut it. Then opened it again. “Why?”


“I like it here. Warren is boring. He’s, like, ugh. Besides, you’re my grandma. You’ve got better food in your refrigerator.” She popped the grape she’d been holding into her mouth.


Chaos, Ruth thought, taking a deep breath before she said the wrong thing—not that she had any idea what the wrong thing was. Or, for that matter, the right thing. Rainie was old enough to know what she wanted, old enough to have an opinion about her mother’s upcoming marriage to Warren Schneier. Rainie and Maddie had lived with Ruth and Barry since Rainie was just a few months old, and Ruth had been more of a mother to Rainie than Maddie had been.


Ruth didn’t spoil her grandchildren. She didn’t wear a frilly blue apron and bake chocolate chip cookies for them. She had never let Rainie leave her toys all over the floor, or throw tantrums, or get everything she asked for the instant she asked for it. Ruth was a stricter mother to Rainie than Maddie was.


But then, Maddie was Maddie. She careened through life, swinging from impulse to impulse. Maddie was brilliant and talented and…chaotic.


Maddie had decided that her teenage daughter ought to be her maid of honor at her wedding to Warren. That alone indicated the quality of Maddie’s parenting. A woman should not ask her fourteen-year-old daughter to be the maid of honor in a wedding about which the daughter’s attitude was at best tepid and at worst hostile. Rainie could have been a bridesmaid, perhaps, but not the maid of honor. Not when Maddie was insisting on a full-blown, full-bore formal wedding with all the trappings, the maid of honor responsible for hosting a shower, a spa day, and a girls’ night out at a male strip club, none of which Ruth would permit Rainie to do. It had become a contentious issue between Ruth and Maddie.


Why Maddie hadn’t asked Jill to be her matron of honor, Ruth couldn’t guess. Jill was Maddie’s older sister, the perfect person to lead the squadron of bridesmaids Maddie had chosen. Maddie’s only explanation was, “I don’t want a matron of honor. I want a maid of honor.” And of course, the person of honor had to be a blood relative. Asking one of her unmarried bridesmaids to step into the leadership role would have insulted Jill beyond measure.


Thank God for Noah. Compared to daughters, sons were easy. Chaotic, true, but chaotic more in a tornado way than in a permanent-emotional-scars way. Sons could demolish a toy or a car or a house without too much effort, but they could not demolish a family, not the way daughters could. Noah could be an usher, don a tuxedo, stand with the groom, and offer a humorous yet touching toast at the reception. He wouldn’t throw a hissy fit over the design of the bridesmaid’s dresses—really, Rainie was much too young for the strapless gowns Maddie had selected for her bridesmaids, and her bosom was much too small. Noah would look dashing as he escorted his wife Laura (who had more than enough bosom to hold up her strapless bridesmaid gown) down the aisle. He would not need a special session with a hairdresser and a cosmetologist before the wedding. He would do what he had to do, and be what he had to be.


There was chaos, and there was chaos. Sons were chaotic.


Daughters were…chaotic.

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