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Excerpt from Selkie

The second time Michael hit her was when he suggested that she might have been somehow damaged or injured when Corinne was born, and that maybe she was no longer fertile, and she said, "Maybe it's not me." She knew even before she said it that she'd enrage him, but she said it anyway. And sure enough, whap, he let her have a good one on the side of the face. She didn't hit the floor, though, because she had half expected it and was ready for it. She lurched sideways, put out her hand and stopped herself from banging into the wall, then walked into the kitchen for her bag of frozen peas.

The peas helped with the swelling but couldn't do anything about the bruising, and at suppertime both girls looked from her face to their father's face, their eyes accusing. Michael flushed. He knew they knew he was responsible for the bruise. He glared at them, daring them silently.

Michelle didn't say anything about the bruise, or about her mother's face or her father's temper. She found a new and unexpected way to get under his skin. She tasted her supper, then looked at her mother and in the sweetest voice imaginable said, "Momma, this meal is as blah and tasteless as that swill Grandmother makes. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I really don't think I could ram any of this down my throat."

"Me neither," Corinne agreed. "Mikey's right, it's like that cabbagey-tasting pablum Grandmother cooks."

"Eat your supper," Michael snapped.

"May I be excused, please?" Michelle had politeness hanging off her in wads.

"May I leave the table, Momma?" Corinne might have taken a course from Madame Whoozits School of Etiquette, Manners and Charm.

"Yes, dears," Cassidy smiled and she knew they knew she knew what they were up to.

It gave her a hint for the next good battleground. She made two suppers, one for her and the girls, one for Michael. His was cooked exactly the way he said he preferred, theirs was pungent with spices and so loaded with garlic it was practically lifting from the table. The girls started at one side of their plates and worked themselves over to the other side and not one Yum yum or Mmm ever good escaped their simmering father.

It wasn't that Cassidy no longer cared she was a huge disappointment to Michael, it was just that she recognized she couldn't possibly make up for her many inadequacies and failures. So she gave up trying to please him and concentrated instead on making life for the girls as pleasant as possible.

Two or three times a year Michael expected Cassidy to pull together a supper with the boss and his wife, and maybe one or two middle management men and their wives, or to throw a party to which all those he thought he should butter up would be invited. Cassidy practically wore herself to a nub getting everything ready, and it was the one area in their life together which didn't seem to disappoint Michael or leave him staring into space as though listening to a far-away Peggy Lee singing, "Is that all there is?" Cassidy really did bend over backward to make everything as good as it could be. She cooked and cooked some more, she made pate, she made her own sausage rolls, she made mini-quiches, she made Swedish meatballs. She got the biggest prawns she could find, breaded them, cooked them, then arranged them tails in, bodies fanning out on a bed of lettuce. She made her own version of head cheese, which had no "head" in it but veal, rabbit and chicken, boiled, stripped from the bones, boiled some more, then put through a grinder with plenty of onion and seasonings, boiled again, then left to sit in its own jelly, chilled for several days and sliced thin on slices of Cassidy's homemade sourdough bread.

She made two or three kinds of potato salad, several bean salads, green salads, mixed salads and grated carrot with raisin and apple salads, she made sweet and sour chicken balls and a person wouldn't find one, not one, salad made with gelatin or jello. No green jello with peas in it, no red jello with grated cabbage. If there was any jello at all, it was part of dessert.

And every time, for supper or dinner or an all-out party, Cassidy made Baked Alaska. Never fail, absolutely positively guaranteed, because if there was one thing Cassidy loved, it was Baked Alaska, just because it was such an unlikely thing. Imagine cooking ice cream!

The girls always requested Baked Alaska for their birthday cakes and often, when Michael was off on one of his business trips, Cassidy would make one for no reason other than the girls were as much in a party mood as she was. Usually they had it for dessert after a decidedly non-gourmet but much-loved dinner of wieners and beans, but even then the baked beans were homemade.

By the time Cassidy found out Michael had a mistress, the affair was nearly over anyway, so she didn't bother raising any dust about it. She might never have known except for the phone call at three in the morning. Not that she eavesdropped, but ever since the girls were babies it had been an unspoken way things got done that Cassidy was the one who got up during the night. After all, Michael needed his sleep because he worked so hard during the day whereas she could take a nap any time she wanted or needed one. So when the phone went off, Cassidy got up and answered it.

The woman on the other end of the line was weeping, and Cassidy wanted to say Now now, there there dear, everything will seem better in the morning, but it was nobody she knew, so it was none of her business, she just went back to bed and nudged Michael awake. "It's for you," she yawned, and crawled back into her still-warm spot. She probably would have gone to sleep in a minute if Michael had just talked in a normal voice, but he whispered. Not a little whisper which could only be heard by someone sitting next to him, but a stupid stage whisper, the kind a person has to use to be heard by the person on the other end of the phone. The whisper caught Cassidy's attention, enough that she sat up and listened long enough to know Michael was in a perfect fury. Just in case his fury had to be targeted on something, or someone, she lay back down, snuggled herself into a little half ball and yawned a few times, deliberately ignoring him. She didn't ask him anything about the phone call, he didn't offer anything. At no time did she demand to know whether or not he was having an affair, and at no time did he volunteer the information. But Cassidy knew there could be no other reason in the world for a weeping woman to phone an angry man in the middle of the night. She also knew her husband well enough to know that one phone call, on its own and by itself, would be enough to make him call a halt, even if things hadn't been in a rough patch to start with, and they must have been in a rough patch or why did the woman phone, and why did she weep?

The phone call, and the way they both dealt with it by not dealing with it, wasn't exactly a sharp corner in their relationship, but it certainly was the start of a slow curve, sending them in a different direction. Cassidy felt a huge relief. No matter how many stupid mistakes she might make, no matter how idiotic Michael might think she was, it was he, the perfect one, who had broken not only the moral and religious vows, but the legal civil contract they had made. Whatever Michael felt-and she was sure embarrassment was among his feelings, because Michael hated to feel anyone had outsmarted him, or even figured out what he was up to when he was being what he thought of as his private self-he seemed to consider Cassidy's silence another sign of her stupidity, or some kind of tacit permission to stray into any other bedroom he chose. He didn't flaunt his affairs, a person could be passed over for promotion if he got too sloppy or outrageous in his personal life, but Cassidy knew he made what she thought of as pit stops when he was away from home.

She didn't care. Whether they're vacuuming your floor, cleaning the drapes, washing the windows, doing the ironing or screwing your husband, if they're doing your job, they are your servant.