The second-worst day of my life started like most days did, back then: with a dream of my own bizarre and improbable death.
This time, I’d traveled to Antarctica to take a deposition. I was ready with my questions. The stenographer was in place. But the curtains in the conference room wouldn’t close. The glare off the snow was blinding. The witness was refusing to testify.
The clock was ticking!
I rushed out and began searching for the reception desk. The hallway turned into a tunnel carved in snow. As I clutched my bathrobe tightly around myself (bathrobe?), I passed a polar bear. But polar bears live in the Arctic, not the Antarctic.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” I told the bear. It snarled and lunged at me.
I ran and ran. I could see reception up ahead. The bear was right behind me, but I was getting closer. I was almost there. I was . . .
Tumbling into an ice crevasse.
I gasped awake, blinked, calmed my pounding heart. Soon, the outlines of dresser and nightstand and lamp emerged from the gloom. Bathroom door. Window.
I was home. I was safe.
I reached for Aaron, but he wasn’t there. I felt a fresh burst of panic, until I remembered: he was on tour. The paperback of Glow Worms had just been released. My hand swept the smooth, empty space beside me where he should have been. Morning was when I missed him most. I missed watching him sleep, one arm flung over his head like a boy’s. Watching his eyes open. Watching him turn toward me and smile.
He’d been away three weeks. Three weeks without the smell of his coffee drifting up the stairs. Without the sound of his laughter. Without his dark eyes, looking up from a book to greet me after a long day.
But he was coming home tonight. Tour over, show on hiatus--he was done traveling for a while. I only had to wait one more day. Then . . .
One more day.
That meant today was . . . the Day.
The clock blinked to 5:02. I sat up.
I had, what? Six hours until 11 a.m.
The call. The case. My moment of truth.
I launched myself out of bed to pace the carpet. What if we lost? Was it possible we’d lost? I grabbed my phone from the nightstand. I needed to talk to Aaron.
He was in San Francisco. Did I really need to wake him? We’d spoken last night, before his reading. He was loving and reassuring, as always.
“You killed it, Raney. Those executives fell apart on the stand. The judge was nodding along during your closing argument--remember? You have nothing to worry about.”
I had nothing to worry about. Nothing. I climbed back into bed and forced myself to spend half an hour editing a brief my senior associate, Stephen, had sent me the night before. Then I showered, brushed my teeth and brushed my hair. Got dressed: suit, blouse, flats. Knuckles on the bathroom counter, I leaned close to the mirror.
“You killed it,” I told my reflection.
My reflection didn’t look convinced.
Before heading downstairs I cracked the door to the twins’ room, peering through the darkness at their huddled forms. I took a step inside. It was all right: they were breathing. They were fifteen--of course they were breathing.
Still, I’m their mother. I worry.
Maisie’s bed was closer to the door. I bent down, brushing a swoop of light brown hair from her warm cheek.
“I love you more than anything in the world,” I whispered.
“Then stop being creepy,” she said.
From the far side of the room, Kate said, “Seriously, Mom. We’ve talked about this.”
I straightened and stepped back. “I’m so sorry!”
“It’s okay.” Maisie plumped her pillow. “Just let us sleep.”
“No, really. It must be awful,” I said. “To be so loved.”
Kate flopped onto her back. “Here we go.”
“To be the center of someone’s existence,” I continued. “Showered with affection. Lavished with care. How you must suffer.”
Maisie reached for her phone. “Most parents encourage their teenagers to rest, Mom. Just FYI.”
“It could be worse,” I pointed out. “Instead of lolling in these clean, comfortable beds, you could be toiling away in some sweatshop.”
She was texting now, her face reflecting the glow of the screen. “Bed or sweatshop,” she remarked. “These are always our only options.”
“Hold up.” Kate raised her head. “Today’s the day.”
“That’s why she’s on edge,” Maisie said.
“I’m not on edge!”
“LOL,” Kate said drily.
“Relax, Mama.” Maisie smiled up at me. “You’re totally going to win.”
“Your oppressed waitresses are going to kick some serious corporate ass,” Kate agreed.
“The plaintiffs are management trainees,” Maisie informed her. “Don’t you pay any attention?”
“That’s how I know most of them started as waitresses, moron.”
“You’re the moron! You--”
“Well!” I clapped my hands. “My work here is done.”
They stopped squabbling long enough to wish me luck. I blew them a kiss and backed out of the room.
A car came for me at 6:15. The driver was new.
“Where’s Kurt?” I said.
“Good morning,” the driver said.
Greetings. Right. Very important. “Good morning,” I said. “Where’s Kurt?”
“Kurt?” The driver steered the car to the end of our driveway. “He got reassigned.”
I fell back against the seat. “Are you serious?”
Brown eyes glanced at me in the rearview, then away. The town car floated down the street. Dawn was breaking over the wooded hills. In massive homes, behind gates and circular drives and meticulously curated lawns, my neighbors were waking. Bankers. Hedge fund managers. Doctors. Stretching, yawning, showering, shaving. Buttoning and knotting. Brewing, scrambling and toasting.
The world--my world--was getting ready for work.
But I didn’t care about any of that at the moment.
“Tell me,” I said to the driver. “I can take it.”
He hesitated. Finally:
“I heard it was the yelling.”
“What?” I cried, before I could catch myself. More calmly: “That’s outrageous.”
“Would you mind buckling your seat belt, Miz Moore?”
I reached for the belt, not taking my eyes off the mirror. “I never yelled at Kurt.”
“I think it was more a proximity-type situation.”
“I yelled near him?”
“He’s a sensitive guy, what can I say? You want me to take the Sprain Brook?”
“Take the Sawmill.” We passed the country club, the shopping center, the nature preserve. I tried to let it go. I couldn’t let it go.
I have a hard time, in general, letting things go.
“I’m extremely careful about raising my voice,” I said. “I’m strategic.”
I caught the hint of a smile. “You ask Kurt, there’s an awful lot of strategy going on back there at six thirty in the morning.”
I pulled Stephen’s brief out of my bag and found my place. I uncapped my pen. I looked up. “What’s your name?”
“Are you going to have a problem with the yelling, Jorge?”
He pursed his lips. “Nah. I’m tough.”
“Excellent.” I turned a page and circled a typo.
Looking back on that time--that car trip, that morning, that strange, enraging autumn--I can’t help but think: forget death in Antarctica--I was the real nightmare. Pestering my children, haranguing my driver . . . who does that?
Funny, though: from the inside, life was good. I was happy. My stresses and challenges seemed to me proof of a full, hectic modern existence--the kind we’re all supposed to strive for. Sure, I was headstrong and obsessive and maybe a little prickly sometimes, but I had plenty of good qualities, too. The people and things I cared about, I cared about deeply. I worked hard--always had. I’d gone to the best high school in the country, the best university, the best law school, all on my own. I never drank. Never smoked. Never cheated. Never lied. I never even swore.
I sound so impressed with myself, don’t I? Swaggering around with my intensity, my work ethic, my litany of bests and nevers. In truth, I was pretty pleased to be me back then. I had a wonderful husband and two great kids. I had good friends and satisfied clients. I was young (thirty-seven), healthy, wealthy and (I thought) wise.
My life was a story I’d written myself, and it hit all the registers. Early loss, long struggle, triumph over adversity. Sacrifices rewarded, love earned and cherished. I was proud of what I’d accomplished.
It was all going very much according to plan.
I finished editing the brief and glanced at my calendar. The entry at 11 a.m. looked so innocuous. “Clerk call.” Two little words.
A lot of what I do is pretty dry stuff. Securities fraud, contract disputes, one faceless corporate entity suing another over a big pile of cash. The case tormenting me that particular morning was different. My clients were a group of women suing a restaurant chain called Gaia Café. It was a ubiquitous, supertrendy lunch spot beloved by vegetarians, vegans and people on the Paleo diet.
Turns out the company’s employment practices were straight out of the Stone Age, too. My plaintiffs suffered pay discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, promotion discrimination and persistent, unwanted sexual advances.
All at a place called the Gaia Cafe.
I’d taken the case pro bono and filed a nationwide class action. The defendant fought us for three years. Their lawyers were weasels and their executives were boors. They offered a joke of a settlement on the eve of trial, which I advised my clients to reject. The trial was a four-month ordeal, widely reported in the press. Our evidence was good, but not great. The judge was sympathetic, but skeptical. We submitted our final papers weeks ago. The previous Friday, I’d received an e‑mail announcing that the court would issue its ruling at 11 a.m. on Monday, at which time the clerk would call both sides and inform us of the judgment.
So yes. I was a little on edge.
My phone rang. When I answered, a voice said, “Thanks for asking me about my date last night.”
It was Sarah, my best friend. We met in the first class on the first day of our first year of law school (Criminal Law, Prof. Raeling, Room 127, third row center). She stopped practicing a few years ago to stay home and raise her kids. Last spring she divorced her husband, the devious and disappointing Tad. Now she was dating again, fiercely and with great determination.
“My apologies,” I said. “How was your date?”
“I got LAID!!!”
Jorge’s eyes flickered to the rearview, then away. I relaxed into my seat. “Congratulations.”
“He was Latvian.” Sarah had a weakness for foreign men. “I’ve finally invaded the Balkans.”
“Whatever, nerd. It was superhot. He was like this hairy, sexy wild boar. Snuffling and growling. Rooting away at me.”
“Right?” I heard dishes rattling. “So are you a mass of jangling nerves right now or what?”
Sarah had followed the Gaia Cafe case from the beginning. She knew the judgment was coming down today. “I’m fine,” I said.
“Liar. How did you die in your dream last night?”
I told her.
“You’re a perv,” she said.
“I’m not a perv!”
“Of course you are. The ice crack represents your--”
Sarah is wonderful. I hadn’t said a word about how nervous I was--she just knew. She also knew that I wasn’t going to be cheered by empty phrases and vague promises that everything was going to be okay. I needed to be bantered with. Teased. Distracted.
“You’re profoundly disturbed,” she said. “This is why you need a therapist.”
The car slowed. Traffic was getting heavier as we approached the city. “I don’t need a therapist.”
“Of course you do.” I heard more dishes rattle and, in the distance, a child’s shout. “The only reason you took this case is because you’re an orphan.”
According to Sarah, the only reason I do anything is because I’m an orphan.
“Those waitresses are stand-ins for your lost mother,” she continued.
“There are fourteen hundred plaintiffs, Sarah.”
“Exactly. You have serious mommy issues.”
I laughed. She kept going. “You’re a wounded bird.”
“I thought I was a piece of hard candy with a gooey center.” Her usual metaphor.
She didn’t miss a beat. “You’re a bird-shaped piece of candy. With a broken candy wing.”
I heard a crash, then wailing. “Is that the wild boar?”
“If only. It’s Mercer. Raney.”
We were passing under the George Washington Bridge. “Yes?”
“No matter what happens today? You did a phenomenal job.”
“My pleasure. Now get to work, ya deadbeat!” She hung up.
I glanced at my calendar for the rest of the day. I had (a) a meeting at 12:30 with the ACLU, (b) a partner lunch at 1:30 and (c) conference calls at 2:15, 3:30, 4:15 and 5:00. In addition, I needed to (d) draft a letter to the court in one of my securities cases and (e) speak with a client about settlement.
I also had a new associate joining my team. Amanda something or other. Fresh out of law school, she would need to be welcomed and inspired. Subtly judged. Intellectually challenged and motivated to begin working the insane hours necessary to justify her exorbitant salary. I hoped she was good.
We left the West Side Highway at Fifty-Fourth Street. I checked my e‑mail. I had seven new messages, including one from Aaron.
From: Aaron Moore
To: Raney Moore
Date: Monday, September 18, 6:41 AM
Subject: Missing You
Hey hon. It’s the middle of the night here, and I can’t sleep. The reading last night was great--lots of kids. This is such a beautiful city. We should come here, maybe after the first of the year? Just the two of us.
This trip has been too long. Can you tell how much I miss you? I miss our daily life. I miss the girls. I miss making love to you. I can’t wait to see you.
Poor Aaron. He hated life on the road. He had trouble sleeping, trouble eating. His homesickness was palpable in every e‑mail, text and phone call.
Are you nervous? What a question--of course you’re nervous. I’m not. We’ll be celebrating tonight. I’m so proud of you.
My phone vibrated twice. High-priority messages. I skipped to the end.
I can see a sliver of the Golden Gate Bridge from my window. It’s beautiful, all lit up in the darkness. I’m going back to bed. Call me when you hear from the court!
As we pulled up to my building, Seventh Avenue was coming to life. Swerving taxis, rumbling trucks. Honking horns and the charred reek of nuts from the vendor on the corner. I took a deep breath of city air, then walked inside.
I read e‑mails through the lobby. Past security. Into the elevator. As the doors closed I put my phone away and closed my eyes and did my thing.