The Other Life
By Ellen Meister
Putnam Adult, 320 pages
List Price: $25
Quinn Braverman had two secrets she kept from her husband. One was that the real reason she chose him over Eugene, her neurotic, self-loathing, semi-famous ex-boyfriend, was to prove her mother wrong. She could have a relationship with a normal, stable man.
The other was that Quinn knew another life existed in which she had made the other choice. The two lives ran in parallel lines, like highways on opposite sides of a mountain. There, on the other side, the Quinn who had stayed with Eugene was speeding through her high-drama, emotionally exhausting, childless urban life. Here, the Quinn who had married Lewis lived in the suburbs of Long Island, drove a Volvo, and was pregnant with her second child.
But the important part of the secret—the part that terrified and thrilled her—was that she knew it was possible to cross from one life to the other. There were portals.
Sometimes she discovered them by accident. Like last month at the supermarket, when she had her hand deep in a bin of string beans, groping for the fresh ones on the bottom. She saw Isaac, her six-year-old, eyeing the Lucky Charms in someone else 's cart, and could tell from his expression that he was considering making a grab for the box. He glanced at her—his conscience—and she simply shook her head.
"Why?" he whined.
"Because we don't take things that don't belong to us."
It was an important lesson and she meant to be stern about it, but when he folded his arms and pouted, Quinn laughed. Something about his naked petulance was so guileless that it melted her heart. When adults behaved like that, it was just plain obnoxious, though she had always excused it in Eugene, her ex. His neediness brought out her tender side. He was anxious, prickly, and so often miserable that comforting him was practically a full-time job. But of course that was Quinn's nature—she was a caregiver. All those years of handling her mother's moods had taken root in her psyche, and Quinn grew toward the troubled like a plant seeking sunlight.
She thought about that as she picked through the string beans. The first cousin of that need to be needed was guilt, Quinn's constant companion. Her conscience gnawed at her continuously. Was she doing enough for Isaac? For Lewis? Had she done enough for Eugene, or had she ruined his life by leaving him when she did? As she turned that thought over in her mind, the solid mass of raw vegetables beneath her fingertips seemed to push away on their own, like a magnet repelled by its opposite. She knew then that she was touching the edge of the other side, and that if she moved the string beans she would find a fissure in the bottom of the bin, a rupture in her universe that presented itself during these moments, when the choices she made to alter her own destiny intersected with the choices she hadn't. Quinn wiggled her fingers, thinking about the life she hadn't chosen. If she wanted to, she could leave Isaac in the middle of the produce section of Waldbaum's and slip through to emerge somewhere else, with a whole different life.
She also knew there was a portal in the basement of her house, behind the ancient built-in ironing board. She never opened it, didn't even like to look at it. But from the time she fi rst walked in and saw it folded up against the foundation wall, she knew.
They'd been house hunting for months, and this hundred-year-old colonial on the North Shore had nearly everything they were looking for. When the real estate agent was out of earshot and Lewis whispered that the place felt like home, Quinn paused. He was right, of course, but was it smart to live in a house with an escape hatch? Would she wake up one night after some stupid fight over who parked on which side of the driveway, and be tempted to slip away?
She didn't think she would. But the very possibility was enough to keep her from telling Lewis about this or any of the portals in her life. Surely he would want assurance that she could never be lured away, and Quinn didn't know if she could make that promise.
In the beginning of their relationship, she was tempted to tell him about this other life she knew existed but had never dared visit. But she asked herself how she would feel if Lewis had such an escape hatch in his life, and it made her shudder in fear. Quinn had spent her entire childhood trying to cope with her mother's unpredictable disappearances into depression, and had managed to fashion an adult life for herself safe from such worries. She simply couldn't burden Lewis with such a terrible torment.
Eventually, the secret worked itself so deep into the tapestry of their relationship that it became easier to ignore than to focus on, and Quinn knew it was her lot in life to protect her husband from this dangerous truth forever.
Ultimately, of course, she agreed to live in the house despite the escape hatch. And in the four years since, she never even opened the antique ironing board to get a good look at what she had sensed behind it. Today, though, while Lewis slept, Quinn sat on the edge of the bed, thinking about the news they had gotten from the doctor, and contemplated tiptoeing into the basement and slipping through.
Reprinted from The Other Life by Ellen Meister with permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Ellen Meister.