Blue-Eyed Devil Page 12

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"I have a body," I said.

"I meant boobs."

"I have those too. They're just not big ones."

"Well, I love you anyway."

I wanted to point out that Nick didn't have a perfect body either, but I knew that would start a fight, Nick didn't read well to criticism, even when it was gentle and well meant. He wasn't used to anyone finding fault with him. I, on the other hand, had been raised on a steady diet of critiques and evaluations.

Mother had always told me detailed stories about her friends' daughters, how well behaved they were, how nice it was that they would sit still for piano lessons, or make tissue-paper flowers for their mothers, or show off their latest ballet steps on cue. I had wished with all my heart that I could have been more like those winsome little girls, but I hadn't been able to keep from rebelling against being miscast as a smaller version of Ava Travis. And then she had died, leaving me with a mountain of regrets and no way to atone.

Our holidays — the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first New Year's — were quiet. We hadn't joined a church yet, and it seemed that all Nick's friends, the ones he said were his family, were occupied with their own families. I approached cooking Christmas dinner as if it were a science class project. I studied cookbooks, made charts, set timers, measured ingredients, and dissected meat and vegetables into the appropriate dimensions. I knew the results of my efforts were passable but uninspired, but Nick said it was the best turkey, the best mashed potatoes, the best pecan pie he'd ever eaten.

"It must be the sight of me in oven mitts," I said.

Nick began stringing noisy kisses along my arm as if he were Pepe Le Pew. "You are ze goddess of ze keetchen."

The Darlington had been so busy during the holidays that I had had to work overtime, while Nick's job bad eased up until after New Year's. With our unsynchronized schedules, it was frustrating and time-consuming for him to drive back and forth all the time. Nothing was ever finished . . . the condo was always a mess, the fridge was seldom stocked, there were always piles of dirty laundry.

"We can't afford to take all my shirts to the dry cleaner's," Nick said the day after Christmas. "You'll have to learn how to do them."

"Me?" I had never ironed anything in my life. The proper pressing of a shirt was a mystery of the universe akin to black holes and dark matter. "How come you can't do your own shirts?"

"I need you to help. Is it too much to ask for you to give me a hand with my clothes?"

"No, of course not. I'm sorry. I just don't know how. I'm afraid I'll screw them up."

"I'll show you how. You'll learn." Nick smiled and patted me on the backside. "You just have to get in touch with your inner Martha Stewart."

I told him I had always kept my inner Martha Stewart chained in the basement, but for his sake I would set her loose.

Nick was patient as he took me step by step through the process, showing me exactly how he liked his shirts starched and ironed. He was particular about the details. At first it was sort of fun, in the same way grouting is fun when you first do it . . . until you face an entire bathroom full of tiles. Or a laundry basket crammed with unwashed shirts. No matter how I tried, I could never seem to get the shirts exactly the way Nick liked them.

My ironing technique became the focus of a near-daily inspection. Nick would go to our closet, file through the row of pressed garments, and tell me where I'd gone wrong. "You need to iron the edges more slowly to get all the little creases out," or, "You need to redo the armhole seams."

"You need to use less starch."

"The back's not smooth enough."

Exasperated and defeated, I finally resorted to using my personal money — we each had the same amount to spend each week to have Nick's shirts professionally laundered and pressed. I thought it was a good solution. But when Nick found a row of shirts hanging in plastic coverings in the closet, he was pissed.

"I thought we agreed," he said shortly, "that you were going to learn to do them."

"I used my own money." I gave him a placating smile. "I'm ironing deficient. Maybe I need a multivitamin."

He refused to smile back. "You're not trying hard enough."

I found it hard to believe we were having an argument over something as trivial as shirts. It wasn't really about the shirts. Maybe he felt I wasn't contributing enough to the relationship. Maybe I needed to be more loving, more supportive. He was going through stress. Holiday stress, work stress, newlywed stress.

"I'll try harder," I said. "But sweetheart . . . is there anything else bothering you? Something we should talk about besides ironing? You know I'd do anything for you."

Nick gave me a cold stare. "All I need is for you to f**king get something right for a change."

I was angry for approximately ten minutes. After that, I was suffused with fear. I was going to fail at marriage, the most important thing I had ever tried to do.

So I called Todd, who sympathized and said everyone had stupid arguments with their partner. We agreed it was just part of a normal relationship. I didn't dare talk to anyone in my family, because I would have rather died than let Dad suspect the marriage wasn't going well.

I apologized abjectly to Nick.

"No, it was my fault," he said, wrapping his arms around me in a warm firm hug. His forgiveness was such a relief, I felt tears spring in my eyes. "I'm asking too much of you," he continued. "You can't help the way you were brought up. You were never expected to do things for other people. But in the real world, it's the small gestures, the little things, that show a guy you love him. I'd appreciate it if you'd make more of an effort." And he rubbed my feet after dinner, and told me to stop apologizing.

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