“You got sole custody?”
He led us into the sunken living room. Brian and I took seats on the sofa, while Angie sat on the love seat across from us. On the coffee table between us was a white copper bucket filled with bottled water. Brian offered us the bottles and we each took one. The labels advertised Brian’s weight-loss book.
“Once Cheryl died, I did, yes.”
“Oh,” Angie said, her eyes wider than usual, her jaw working to mask her frustration, “your wife died. And then you, uh, won custody?”
“Exactly. She contracted stomach cancer. I’ll go to my grave knowing it was the drugs that did it to her. You can’t abuse your body that way and expect it to continually repair itself.”
I noticed that the skin closest to his eyes, where the crow’s feet should have been, was whiter and tighter than the rest of his face. Circles the size of sand dollars indented the flesh. Like his wife, he’d had work done. Apparently his body didn’t repair itself continually.
“So you received sole custody,” Angie said.
He nodded. “Thank God they were living in New Hampshire. If it had been Vermont or here? I’d probably have had to fight another three years.”
Angie looked over at me. I gave her my flattest gaze, the one I reserve for situations that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“Brian, excuse me for jumping to conclusions,” she said, “but are we talking about a same-sex-marriage issue?”
“Not marriage.” He placed the tip of one index finger on the coffee table and bent it until the flesh turned a pink-lemonade shade. “Not marriage. Not in New Hampshire. But, yes, a domestic partnership of that nature was being enacted in full view of my daughter. If they’d been allowed to marry, who knows how long the custody fight could have worn on?”
“Why?” I asked.
Angie said, “Did your ex-wife’s partner—?”
“Elaine. Elaine Murrow.”
“Elaine, thank you. Did Elaine legally adopt Sophie?”
“She ever begin proceedings in pursuit of that?”
“No. But if they had found the right activist judge? And that’s not hard around here. Who’s to say they couldn’t have turned my attempt to regain custody into a test-case to overturn the entire idea of biological parental rights?”
Angie gave me another careful look. “That seems a bit of a stretch, Brian.”
“Does it?” He twisted the cap off his water. He took a long swig. “Well, not to me. And I lived it.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “So once Sophie came to live with you and you two ironed out the bumps, things were good?”
“Yeah.” He placed the water bottle on the coffee table and for a moment his face glowed with some distant memory. “Yeah. For about three years, things were very good. Sure, she had some issues over the passing of her mother and the move from New Hampshire, but generally? Things were very fine between us. She was respectful, she made her bed every morning, she seemed to take to Donna, she performed well in school.”
I smiled, feeling the warmth of his memories. “What’d you guys talk about?”
“Yeah,” I said. “My daughter and I, we both like cameras, you know? I got this black SLR and she’s got this pink baby-digital and we—”
“I mean”—he shifted a bit on the couch—”we were more about doing things together. Like, well, I got her jogging and doing a yoga-Pilates fusion with Donna that really helped them bond. And she used to come to the fitness center I run in Woburn. The one that started my company? That’s where we broadcast our Sunday-morning show and do the mail order. She was great helping out. Just great.”
“War,” he said. “One day, no rhyme or reason to it. I’d say black, she’d say white. I’d serve chicken for dinner, she’d tell us she’d become a vegan. She started doing her chores sloppily or not at all. Once BJ was born, it got out of control.”
He indicated the small boy in the photos. “Brian Junior.”
“Ah,” I said. “BJ.”
He turned to face me, his hands clasped at his knees. “I’m not a taskmaster. I only have a few rules in this house, but they’re firm rules. You understand?”
“Of course,” I said. “With a kid, you’ve got to have rules.”
“So, okay.” He began ticking them off on his fingers. “No profanity, no smoking, no boys over when I’m not home, no drugs or alcohol, and I’d like to know what you’re doing on the Internet.”
“Perfectly reasonable,” I said.
“Plus, no dark lipstick, no fishnet stockings, no friends with tattoos or nose rings, no junk food, processed food, or sodas.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Right,” he said, as if I’d said “Atta boy.” He leaned forward a bit more. “The junk food contributed to her acne. I told her that, but she didn’t listen. And all the sugar contributed to her hyperactivity and inability to concentrate in school. So her grades went down and her weight went up. It was a terrible example for BJ.”
“Isn’t he, like, three?” Angie asked.
Wide eyes and rapid nodding. “A very impressionable three. You don’t think this starts early, the national obesity crisis? And then let’s consider the national learning crisis we have. Angela, it’s all connected. Sophie, with her self-indulgence and her constant fits of drama, was setting a terrible example for our son.”
“She’d entered puberty, though,” Angie said. “And she was in high school. Everything that does a number on a girl’s head.”
“Which I appreciated.” He nodded. “But plenty of recent studies have shown that it’s our coddling of pubescent children in this country that contributes to an extended adolescence and arrested development.”
“I still can’t believe they canceled that show,” I said. “It was genius.”
“My bad,” I said. “I was thinking of something else.”
Angie would have shot me if she could have cleared the room of witnesses.
“Go on,” I said.
“So, yes, Sophie was going through puberty. I get that. I get it. I do. But there are still rules to adhere to. Yes? She refused. I finally drew a line in the sand—lose ten pounds within forty days or leave the house.”