The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 31

In love, Frankie learned to lie. It was one of two new constants in her life: lying and loving Rye throughout that long, lazy summer.

She didn’t tell anyone she’d been suspended from nursing, and so she had hours when no one expected to hear from her. She lived frugally, on her savings.

Her life alternated between two worlds—one of passion and the other of guilt. Day after day, she promised herself, No more. No more pills, no more Rye. He was as much a drug as the others.

She swore each day she’d tell him to go away and not come back until he was divorced, but when he showed up at her door, wearing a smile just for her, she was lost, and as good as it felt to lose herself in his arms, the pleasure turned cold when he left her bed. Each day she was reminded of her weakness, her dishonesty, her immorality, her obsession. Over and over and over. At night, when she was alone, she agonized that he was in bed with his wife and she imagined the pain this affair would cause the innocent Joey. But as much as she despised herself, she couldn’t deny him. She was like a starving person who was given two hours a day in a bakery, and in those hours, she came fully, gloriously alive, reveled in her appetite.

“Stay the night this time,” she pleaded at last, hating the plaintive edge to her voice. She meant, Choose me, but she knew he couldn’t do it. He and Melissa were talking to a lawyer; he was looking for his own place, but he couldn’t do anything to upset his custody of Joey. He loved his daughter with abandon.

“You know I can’t,” he said, stroking her bare arm as they lay together in bed.

She couldn’t help looking at the clock. Three P.M. She felt the incipient spark of panic, the sharp sting of regret. Regret that he was leaving, or that she’d let him stay?

“I can’t wait for you to meet Joey. She’ll love you,” he said.

Frankie let herself be soothed by that. “I hope so. And we’ll have children, too, right?”

“Of course. I want a daughter who looks just like you.” He smiled. “Joey wants a brother or sister. She says it constantly.”

“I love you,” she said, rolling toward him. She traced the scars on his shoulder with her lips. Puckered burns covered his chest, created white patches of skin amid the graying blond hair.

She stretched out against his thin body, pressing into him. “I wish I’d been the one writing you letters.”

“Me, too, babe. I care for Missy, but this … you … soon we can stop hiding.”

His hand moved down her bare skin. Need pulled at her, made her move against him, made her breathing speed up.

She rolled onto her back, gave him full access to her body. His kisses awakened the part of her that belonged only to him.


By summer’s end, Frankie was a knot of nerves; all of the waiting, the hoping, the hiding was tearing her to pieces. She was lying to everyone she knew and she hated it. She’d taken off her Saint Christopher medal and hidden it away, afraid it would burn her skin while she slept.

She needed more pills to sleep and more pills to stay awake. Still, she went on with the affair, waiting every day for the moment she could announce the truth to her friends and family and unpack this terrible, oppressive guilt.

She avoided answering the phone; lying to Barb or Ethel was impossible, but neither could she tell them the truth. She returned calls when she knew they’d be gone or hung up when one of them answered.

Never had she imagined herself to be the woman that she’d become; loving Rye had transformed her into a liar.

Every night, alone in her bed, she prayed that tomorrow he would say it was done, they could be together, walk hand in hand in the sunlight, spend the night together.

Each morning, she felt another piece of her soul fall away.

In August, when she got Barb’s excited phone call that she was getting married, Frankie’s first reaction was a searing, toxic jealousy that took all her will to suppress.

Now she was in a Chicago park, on a sweltering hot late summer day, standing in front of a few guests who sat in folding chairs, already drinking champagne. The aisle had been strewn with red rose petals.

Ethel and Frankie, both dressed in brightly colored, geometric print palazzo jumpsuits and white sandals, stood by a wooden arch that had been decorated with flowers and greenery.

Next to them, under the arch, was the groom, in a brown polyester sport coat with matching slacks. His twin boys were his groomsmen. A Baptist minister held on to a Bible.

A portable cassette player with not-great speakers played Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” as guests took their seats. Ethel swayed to the music, quietly singing along.

At the end of the aisle, Barb waited impatiently; she was dressed in a flowy white jersey halter dress, her hair decorated with flowers. She held on to her mother’s arm.

When the last guest was seated, Barb gave the thumbs-up.

Ethel went to the portable tape deck, changed the music, and turned it up on “Here Comes the Bride.”

Barb and her mother walked slowly down the aisle, past the smiling collection of friends and family who were here: a few of Barb’s relatives from Georgia, some of her coworkers at Operation PUSH, Jere’s ACLU colleagues, and Ethel’s husband, Noah, and their daughter, Cecily. Barb was smiling so brightly it made Frankie’s whole life look tawdry, sinful.

There, she thought, that’s love. The way Barb kissed her mom and helped her into her chair in the front row; the way Jere looked at his bride.

Love. A thing to be shouted from the rooftops, celebrated, not cultivated in secret and clipped into shape in the dark.

“Dearly beloved,” the minister said. The music snapped off.

Barb and Jere held hands, stared at each other. The minister’s voice went on, saying the words she’d heard at other weddings and on television and in movies.

Old words. Love. Honor. Commitment.

And as much as Frankie wanted to celebrate with her friend, as much as she rejoiced in Barb’s new love and new life, she felt that toxic shame growing in her, pushing kinder emotions aside.

She closed her eyes and imagined herself beneath the arch, with Rye at her side and Joey strewing flowers …

She heard Jere say, “From now on, Barbara Sue, I am here for you, standing beside you. To paraphrase Yeats, I love the pilgrim soul in you and love the sorrows of your changing face. Always and forever.” He placed a ring on her finger.

“Barbara Sue Johnson,” the minister said, “do you promise to love, honor, and obey Jeremiah Maine, as long as you both shall live?”

“I do,” Barb said, beaming at him as she fit a plain gold band on his finger.

“You may kiss the bride,” the minister said.

Jere pulled Barb into his arms. She clung to him, kissed him. When they drew apart, they were both laughing.

The music changed, turned up loudly: “Let’s Get It On.”

Ethel whooped and hollered. Frankie realized a moment too late that she was crying.

Ethel put an arm around her. “It’ll happen for you, too,” she said.

Frankie wiped the tears from her eyes. “I still think about…” It took pure strength to finish. “Rye.” She looked up at Ethel, thought, Tell me it’s okay to love him. Release the shame.

“Forget him, Frank. He’s a liar. You’re too good for him.”

“But. I love him. I mean … he is my one.”

Ethel gave her a look so hard and sad Frankie felt its impact in her bones. “No. He’s married, Frank. He is a father. I know you. I know how much you cared for Jamie, but you wouldn’t even consider dating a married man. You’re a good woman. Honest. Moral to the point of ridiculousness. You couldn’t survive an affair.”

Each word felt like a nail, driving into her, breaking bones. Honest. Moral. Good.

No, she wanted to say. That isn’t me anymore.


Frankie made her decision at the reception, while she danced to music she didn’t recognize, holding Ethel’s beautiful daughter in her arms.

No more.

Enough.

She wanted this. A wedding, a family, a baby.

How could she possibly be granted such grace after an affair? God and goodness and grace demanded change for redemption.

Every moment she spent at the reception, Frankie felt like a liar, a cheat. She drank too much and was unsteady on her feet when Barb and Jere drove off for their honeymoon.

“Are you okay?” Ethel asked, standing beside her, holding her hand, looking at her with love and worry in her eyes.

Frankie couldn’t stand it. Suddenly she didn’t want Ethel to love her, to care about her, to hold her hand. How could Frankie deserve such friendship? She mumbled an excuse, said she was tired, or too drunk, or just plain sad; she couldn’t really remember her words. All she knew was that she needed to leave. Now, before she broke down in front of her friend.

She took a taxi back to the hotel, gathered up her things, and went to the airport, waiting hours for her flight, long enough to sober up, which only made her feel worse.

At home, she sat in her living room, chain-smoking, drinking gin, tapping her foot nervously, waiting for Rye, determined to tell him she’d had enough. She couldn’t live like this anymore.

When he finally showed up, flowers in hand, she made him stay outside.

“I can’t do it anymore,” she said. “It’s breaking me apart, Rye. I’m sorry. I can’t be the other woman anymore. It’s wrong.”

She waited for him to answer; when he didn’t, she took a step back, started to close the door.

Slowly, in the new and broken way he moved, he lowered himself to one knee. She could see how much it hurt him to do. “Will you marry me, Frankie?”

Frankie burst into tears, realizing just then how long she’d been waiting for this, how intensely she needed it. This would right them both, make everything okay, wash her of this sin. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes.”

He climbed painfully back to his feet; she helped him. “I want us,” he said in a gruff voice. “You. Me. A baby…”

“Thank God,” Frankie said, pulling him into the house and back to her bedroom. Her whole body was shaking.

It would be okay. Finally.

He leaned toward her for a kiss. She met him more than halfway.


Autumn on Coronado Island came late this year, and gradually, a turning of the leaves, a need for sweaters at night, an emptying of the beaches. Once again, the restaurants on Orange Avenue were filled with locals instead of tourists. School buses had returned to their routes in the first week of September; to Frankie these were the things that would always mean fall.

On this cool late November day, almost ten months after Rye’s return from Vietnam, Frankie put on a jacquard-patterned knit dress, parted her long, straight hair down the middle, pulled it back into a ponytail, and then drove to the hospital.

At the director of nursing’s office, she was instructed to wait.

Frankie was ready for this meeting, more than ready. In the two months since Rye’s proposal, she had started to become herself again. They had talked about wedding rings, and honeymoon plans, and a ceremony on the beach. Kauai for their honeymoon, for another week at the Coco Palms. He was ready to merge into her world, talk to her parents. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends and family. Barb and Ethel. Oh, they would look askance at first, maybe wonder at her morality, but she would never tell them that she and Rye had slept together before his divorce. That shame she’d bear alone.

“Frankie? She’ll see you now.”

Frankie stood up. Holding her purse close, she walked into the office and took a seat when directed.

“Hello, Mrs. Stone,” she said, sitting in the ladylike way she’d been taught a lifetime ago when the world had been softer, different. Back straight, chin up, legs crossed at the ankles. She knew she looked better than she had the last time she’d been here. This morning it had taken only one pill to rouse her spirits. In the past month she’d cut back. “I wanted to thank you for suspending me,” she said. “I know that sounds odd, but you were right. I was underwater. I might have made a mistake in the OR, and I couldn’t have lived with that.”

“You’re one of the best nurses I’ve ever worked with,” Mrs. Stone said. “But the last time I called you for work, you sounded impaired.”

Frankie hoped she didn’t flinch. “Just before my first coffee. Moving a little slow. That’s all.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all,” she lied.

“I know about the pain of a miscarriage. And my husband served in Korea. He’s told me that some … experiences settle in our bodies as well as our minds. Perhaps you need help dealing with some things?”

“I’m fine. Truly.”

“Even if one’s experience isn’t as traumatic as combat, I’m told wartime can rather upend a man for a time.”

A man.

“I’m ready to go back to work, ma’am,” Frankie said. “I may soon even have some good news to share that will put your mind at ease.”

Mrs. Stone studied her for a long moment. “All right, Frankie. In fact, Karen Ellis called in sick today. Can you finish out her shift?”

“Of course. I still have scrubs in my locker.” Frankie stood up. “You won’t regret it, ma’am.”

“See that I don’t.”

Frankie left the office filled with hope.

This was the first step to recovery. She would be herself again in no time. Marry Rye and wear white. Not some off-the-rack prom dress this time. With Rye, she wanted it all: the gown, the veil, the church, the cake.


A week later, Frankie stared down at a display of wedding rings in the jeweler’s case.

“May I help you, miss?” the clerk asked her.

Frankie glanced at her watch. Her shift at the hospital started soon. “No, thank you. I guess my fiancé has been detained,” she lied. Next time she came to this store, she would bring Rye with her, see what kind of ring he wanted and show him her favorites. There was nothing wrong or weird with her looking by herself, was there?

Leaving the store, she drove across town to the medical center, which rose tall and white against the morning’s cloudless cerulean sky. Inside, she changed into her teal-blue scrubs, covered her long hair with a cap, and headed to the surgical floor.

She assisted on one surgery after another for hours. At the end of her shift, she checked on her patients, and then headed down to the first floor.

In the lobby, she saw a crowd of men in suits gathered around the desk. Most were scribbling in open notepads.

Reporters.

Probably some famous local resident had given birth; like Raquel Welch, who had been Raquel Tejada back when she’d been crowned the Fairest of the Fair at the San Diego County Fair. Or maybe an actor had died.

Frankie headed for the door. As she passed the clot of reporters, she heard someone say, “Lieutenant Commander Walsh.”

Frankie stopped, turned back. Pushing through the reporters, she got to the front of them just as the woman at the desk was saying, “We respect our patients’ privacy. You know that. You may not speak to them yet. I’ve called security.”

“But it isn’t every day a former prisoner of war—”

Frankie edged around the reporters, ducked behind the front desk, and sidled up to one of the women seated there. “The reporters. They want to see—”

“Some famous guy’s wife. A prisoner of war. Walsh.”

His wife. “Is she okay?”

The woman shrugged.

“Where is she?”

“Four-ten B.”

Frankie went to the elevator and pushed the button impatiently. It wasn’t until she stepped inside that she realized where she was going.

The fourth floor.

Ping! The doors opened.

She walked slowly down the hallway, feeling suddenly sick; at the last door, she saw the patient’s name and stopped: WALSH, MELISSA.

Frankie pushed the door open just enough to see Melissa Walsh, sitting up in bed, surrounded by balloons and flowers and baskets of candy. A soccer ball balloon said IT’S A BOY!

A bassinet was at her bedside; through the clear sides, Frankie could see a baby swaddled in blue.

Frankie backed away quickly, hit something, and turned around.

Rye stood there. “Frankie,” he said, too softly for his wife to hear. “I meant to … it doesn’t mean—”

She shoved him out of her way, ran out of the hospital, and got into her car, slammed the door shut. Her hands were shaking so hard she dropped the keys. She opened her purse, took out two Valium, and swallowed them dry, then bent down, tried to find her keys on the floor mat.

Someone banged on her window.

She couldn’t look … had to look.

Rye stood there, looking as destroyed as she felt. “I’m sorry,” he yelled.

She started the car, stomped on the gas.

She had no idea what to do, where to go. She’d fallen for his lies again. Again. Melissa must have gotten pregnant soon after Rye’s return. With Frankie, he’d used condoms. Always. Never a mistake.

All these months, while he’d been sleeping with Frankie, his wife had been pregnant. When he’d proposed, Melissa had been nearing term. He’d dropped to a knee, said, “Marry me,” and Frankie had believed him. She’d believed every smile, every touch, every promise. Believed blindly, believed when he said, Soon, baby. Soon we will tell everyone we’re together.

Oh my God.

The only person she hated more than Rye was herself.


She needed a drink.

It was all she could think of. She couldn’t go home, to the bungalow where he had clothes in the closet, where he’d dropped to one knee and proposed marriage.

She drove past the bar frequented by the hospital staff and drove to San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and found a parking spot on the street in front of a tavern where she would be anonymous. She went inside, found it already half-full of patrons who looked like regulars.

She slipped up onto a barstool. “Gin on the rocks,” she said. “And a pack of Virginia Slims.”

When the bartender returned with her drink, she barely looked at him. Her hand was trembling as she reached for the glass.

It’s a boy! crashed through her like a wrecking ball, destroying every fragile block of herself she’d tried to rebuild.

“I deserve this,” she said.

“Huh?” the bartender said.

“Nothing. Another drink, please.”

She took the second drink and downed it, then ordered a third. When a good-looking man sat beside her, said, “Hey, foxy lady,” she snagged her purse and headed out again. In the car, she cranked up the music on “I Am Woman.”

She drove out of the crowded quarter.

She should slow down; she was going too fast.

She sang along with the song, realized she was crying. Ahead was the bridge. She hit the gas, rocketed forward; a stanchion of concrete in front of her, a wall of gray to her right, and then nothing but water. She turned the wheel, just a fraction of an inch.

A man on a bicycle came out of nowhere. She slammed on the brakes, felt the car spiral out of control on the road, saw handlebars in her headlights. She yanked on the wheel, tried to turn the other way.

Too late.

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