The Rise and Fall of the Baker-Andersons
Part I. They meet
It wasn’t her fault she heard so much English while bumming around Europe. If a German wants to communicate with an Italian, she discovered, they use English, making all her years conjugating the subjunctive tense and perfecting that difficult Castilian lisp in Spanish class a waste of time. Similarly, she ran across a lot of American accents because Spain was crawling with people from the States. Everywhere she turned she heard Midwestern parents begging their children to try new foods, middle-aged couples from California arguing about tired feet versus visiting one more church, and Southern teen tour chaperones yelling at their bored charges who would rather go shopping than visit another museum. This was not how she had planned her summer tour of architectural sites, but she accepted reality. Heather Anderson was a realist, she reminded herself whenever she wanted to replace disappointment with optimism.
Even so, the sound of two American college students stood out. “Bro, I never expected Bilbao to be so nice. I’m glad you talked me into this detour.” Heather and Morgan looked at each other and then quickly scanned the crowd to see where the voices were coming from. “But now that we are here, what do you want to do?” Two young men, obviously American because they were dressed in shorts and tee shirts, were standing about a dozen feet from them. “We should be in Barcelona, partying with the beautiful people.”
“Those Catalonian doñas will still be waiting for you when we get there, my man. This is a spontaneous adventure,” said the other one. “Here, there are yet to be known Basque women to sample, unimagined drinking spots to explore.”
Heather was too intrigued not to interrupt. “You mean you didn’t plan on visiting Bilbao? Like, you hadn’t meant to see Geary’s Museum and Calatrava’s bridge?” She was exercising the privilege of being a college student: the freedom to confront complete strangers. Plus, she was amazed that anyone could accidently end up in this corner of Spain. She had purposely planned her visit and was surprised to discover that not everyone was like her.
“Yes. Well, the museum is famous, of course,” the handsome blond man grinned at her, and Heather instinctively smiled back. “But the bridge? I don’t know. Where is that?” The man was tall and thin with big gray eyes, his friend was a few inches shorter, but more muscular.
Heather gave Morgan an intentionally obvious eye roll, pitying the two clueless boys, and then turned back to smile at the taller of the two students. She pointed, with kindness she hoped, at the soaring, twisted arch bridge behind them. The taller guy hit his companion in the arm and said, “For Pete’s sake, Matt, turn around and get a look at that bridge! You’re missing all the important things we came to see in this burg.” He then said to Heather. “I want to apologize for my buddy, Matthew, here. He was born and raised under a railroad embankment in New Jersey and has an instinctive dislike of all river crossings.” Connor looked at her, completely smitten. Barely twenty-one, Heather had grown to enjoy her good looks and the way men reacted to her. All through junior high she had thought she was ugly and had too much leg and not enough breast for boys to like her. Determined to change herself, she spent years playing sports and keeping in shape in order to make herself grow physically. Another legacy of those childhood doubts was that she made it a practice to always be smartly dressed and even though she was in pants at the moment, she looked good.
“Don’t believe a single thing Connor says.” Heather watched Matt try to fake a scowl, she could tell he liked Connor and was used to him spinning out yarns on the fly. This added to her interest in both of them. “He makes things up as he goes along. I’m from Salt Lake City. We don’t have rivers, or at least rivers with water in them in Utah. And I don’t hate bridges.” Matt’s hair was dark, wavey, and unkept, reflecting that it had been six weeks since his last haircut. Connor’s thick straight hair was worse because, as Heather later learned, he had succumbed to temptation and had his hair cut by a drunk barber in Valencia.
Connor gave an ostentatious glance to the left and right as if he were about to share a big secret. “The real reason we came here was to meet you two.” Heather let Connor continue because she had started the conversation and he was easy on the eyes. She swore she’d be nice. “We knew you’d be right here right now.” He checked his watch. “Actually, you were a minute and a half behind schedule. Traffic?” If a boyfriend ever accused her of being tardy, she would have ended things on the spot. She had never been late for anything in her life. However, she was in a forgiving mood. She liked Connor’s style, his self-confidence and enthusiasm made her feel good. Still, she didn’t know whether to cut off Connor and walk away or to let this flirtation go to its logical conclusion. But then the sexual overtones in Connor’s voice made her decide to let him continue, and because Heather hated spontaneity, she began to plan an evening with Connor that would end with the two of them in bed. She was not a passive woman; once she decided she wanted a guy, she asserted herself to make things happen her way.
Normally, she avoided overly sexy men, finding them too self-centered to care about the women they were with. But she allowed herself a bit of fun as a reward for the growing number of building sketches she had completed in the last month. She was ahead of schedule and could relax a bit. Thus, she treated Connor like a rich dessert she shouldn’t eat, but couldn’t resist, and promised herself she’d limit him to just a single taste. Rationalizing, she decided that Connor could fill the slot she had set aside for the romantic adventure portion of her summer.
After introductions, it turned out they should have known each other all along. The boys were rising seniors at Boston University while the girls were just about to start their fourth year at Tufts. Heather had dated one of Connor Baker’s lacrosse teammates sophomore year and Matt’s cousin and Morgan’s freshman roommate had gone to the same high school. All these coincidences made Heather more comfortable in the moment, but years later she wondered why none of their mutual acquaintances had warned her that it would all end so badly. Someone should have known Connor’s true nature.
At this moment, however, there were things she couldn’t understand about him, filling her with an intoxicating mixture of fascination and dread. “So, you two are just randomly zig zagging across Spain?” She shivered despite the heat.
Connor and Matt looked at each other as if they were two eight-year-olds caught stealing cookies. “Yes. It just happened like that. We flew into Madrid and have return tickets from Barcelona. But everything in between depends on our whims of the moment. Andalusia last week, Basque country today, and Catalonia next week seems to be the way we are trending. But maybe something better will come along, maybe someone beautiful like you, and we will change our minds in an instant.”
Heather laughed to hide a scowl. She wanted to stay light-hearted and not lecture. “I could never do that. I’d be terrified something bad would happen to me or I might miss out on something important. You boys are lucky you didn’t run into some sort of disaster.”
Matt shook his head in agreement though no one believed he was contrite. He was just trying to impress Morgan, who needed no further encouragement because unlike Heather, she was ruled by her hormones. She was more smitten with Matt than Heather was with Connor. “Our ventures don’t always turn out okay. We almost got murdered when we joined a soccer game on the Alameda de Hercules in Seville two nights ago. Some of the local boys didn’t appreciate Connor’s ability to curse in Spanish.” Looking at his arms, Heather briefly considered a night with Matt rather than Connor, but that decision was made for her as Morgan had already claimed him.
The afternoon swiftly passed. Connor and Matt didn’t have any plans for what to see so the boys tagged along to the Guggenheim and accompanied them through the Municipal Art Museum. Connor had many traits that might have annoyed her, if Heather chose to focus on them, but she decided to live in the moment and ignore his bad points. She vowed not to judge. Connor had decided to apply to law school, for example, mostly because he didn’t know what else to do with his life. But he had yet to sign up for the LSAT and was still of a mind he’d just take the GREs instead even though that would make law school more difficult. Heather, in contrast, had decided to be an architect when she was in junior high school and this summer’s tour was part of her preparation. She didn’t like passive or indecisive people and was glad there would be nothing more with Connor than an interesting couple of hours. Therefore, she focused on how Connor might kiss rather than his lazy attitude towards his future.
By the end of the afternoon, the foursome had agreed to a plan, proposed by Heather, to meet for dinner and drinks in a couple of hours. Heather used that interval to shower, shave her legs, and make sure her skirt and embroidered blouse were perfect when they met up again. When they reconnected after sundown, she was grateful, having already learned to lower her expectations, that Connor was at least wearing a dress shirt even if it was wrinkled.
Connor made up for his lack of polish with flirtatious gallantry. “The secret to surviving a night of cervezas and pintxos,” he huskily whispered, “is to never, ever, finish a beer no matter how good it tastes or how much you are enjoying yourself.” Sitting at a small high-top table on the sidewalk outside a bar, Connor was so close to her ear that his breath excited her. “I want you sober. If you’re drunk, all I can go for is a kiss. If you are in command of your senses, I can work all of them.” Heather went light on the beer because she was intoxicated by Connor.
“What are you two talking about?” asked Morgan, slurring her words as she let a very drunk Matt slide his hand up and down her leg.
“I’m telling her that I have a huge amount of Neanderthal DNA in me.” Connor thumped his chest. “Against my will, I have revealed that I’m not a modest college student banging around Spain on his parents’ dime. I’m really a brutish artist, freshly emerged from a newly explored cave in the Pyrenees, hoping to be discovered by a downtown gallery.” With that, Connor stood up and did a little dance to the spirited music from the bar. “‘La Vida es un Carnival’! The perfect song for this perfect night.” As the music reached its exhilarating coda, he held out a hand to Heather.
“Dance with me, perfect lady.” She hesitated for a moment, and then joined him for the final few bars, about as much dancing she could handle. When the song finished and they sat down again, Heather was elated to have been spontaneous, for a moment.
There was a lot she needed to know about Connor. “If you go to school in Boston, how do you know Spanish music?” She wanted to experience how he thought and how he felt. She needed intimacy. But even as he made a show of opening up, Connor evaded her.
“Cuban, not Spanish, music,” he gently corrected her. “The music in Spain is entirely different. That song was by Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, and her music is all around us in Boston, if you just open your ears.” She was smitten, but even in that first state of overpowering love and lust, she felt something wasn’t right. “Actually, it’s no mystery. They play music from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic in the kitchen at the pizza place down the street from where I live.” He stopped to pantomime looking out over a cliff. “The world is full of little things that are easy to miss, and I aim to see them all. It isn’t Christmas to a Jamaican exile unless they can get their hands on Sorrel Drink, for one thing, so we have to spend the holidays in Kingston some December. On the opposite side of the world, China is full of cities with populations over ten million that we’ve never heard of, but we must promise to visit someday, if only for the architecture.” He pressed himself against her, not wanting to let her go. “Put a few drinks in me and I’ll start reciting Nahuatl poetry, despite having no idea what the words mean. My accent, however, will be flawless and my lament of doomed love will move you to tears.” Maybe she could get used to Connor in her life.
Part II. They commit
Though he was careful to hide his distaste for this whole wedding thing, it was becoming increasingly difficult to humor Heather’s whims, and he found himself fighting to control his anger. If it were up to him, Heather would have just given him a call around 2:30 one afternoon to say, “Busy? I’d like to run over to City Hall and get hitched,” and the whole thing would have been done. But in Heatherworld, that beautiful but increasingly annoying landscape in her head, there were protocols that had to be followed, traditions to be honored. Connor made it a point to comply with her many demands because he was in love and that was what people in love did for each other: they obeyed the rules no matter how arbitrary and confining they might be. Or so he told himself. He wasn’t really the rule follower type. Nor did he respect traditions. If she had asked him, he would have told her that he wanted to make up their own wedding as they went along. He was only going through all this hoopla for her, though it wasn’t easy.
They had been through so many adventures together; it was impossible for him to imagine life without her. They had made love on Christmas Eve on a chaise lounge on a patio in Jamaica after sharing a bottle of Sorrel Drink and climbed the pyramids of Teotihuacan where he fulfilled his promise of reciting Nahuatl poetry, though it was a story of war and plunder, not love. Heather cried anyway. They may not have visited China’s new cities, but they had walked along the Great Wall and explored the Forbidden City. Through it all, he fell ever more deeply in love with her honey-colored hair and green eyes, that little mole above her left breast, and her nervous laugh when he forced her out of her comfort zone to take on another new adventure. He depended on her to keep him tethered to reality and without her, he would not have been the man he was today. He was proud that they actually accomplished the things he said they would do, though he had to admit that it was she who had pushed them to sites around the globe, not him.
The wedding planning opened his eyes to how different they were, something he had sensed, but had never paid attention to. He was all Bauhaus: crisp clean lines, no unneeded embellishment, and his form always followed his function whether it be the houses he designed or the flowers he regularly sent to Heather. His fiancée, on the other hand, was totally Baroque: she wanted a wedding with arpeggios, inversions, and trills, all carefully written out in advance. Her ideal wedding, he woke up to discover, was full of curlicues and ostentatiously over the top, carefully colored-in detail.
That meant he couldn’t simply ask Heather to marry him. She made it extremely clear that if he just sank to his knees to propose, she’d be mortally offended. His proposal had to be elaborate and sharable on social media, something to impress her friends and sisters. So he gave it his all. When he added up the cost of the videographer, the choreographer of the flash mob, the expense of outfitting all forty people involved in identical clothes, and the cleaning tab for getting the glitter off his favorite suit, not to mention the value of his time, the expense of the ring was trivial. But it was worth it, he told himself, because it made Heather happy. That was his only goal in all this: give Heather the wedding she had always dreamed of. Connor was amused, at first, to discover that the accomplished career woman he had fallen in love with harbored not so secret desires to be treated like a princess. He was just grateful at this point that he was handsome enough to be included in the wedding photos and sufficiently thin to fit the tux she had picked out for him.
Still, he put up little bits of resistance just to assert his own personhood into the wedding extravaganza of Heather’s dreams. He balked at having to orchestrate any elaborate asking of the ushers to be in the wedding, for example. He made it a simple matter of making a dozen calls that began, “Dude, reserve May 21. Heather and I are getting married, and we want you to be part of the ceremony.” Well no. It did become a big blowup because he didn’t get around to making his calls fast enough to comply with Heather’s intricate and unalterable timeline. Grudgingly, he completed them if not early enough by her schedule, then sufficiently in advance of the date so that all of his buddies were able to participate. Even Matt, now living in New York with a wife and baby, made time to be his best man.
In contrast, asking the bridesmaids proved to be an ordeal. The original plan was to have a dozen messengers, dressed as matadors to honor how they had met in Spain, simultaneously drop off boxes of organic, fair grown milk chocolates at each woman’s home. Inside each ornate little chest would be the invite to be a bridesmaid. But then it turned out that Morgan, just back from getting married in Vegas to a man she met three weeks before, didn’t eat dairy and Becky had cut out all processed sugars, so chocolates would have been received as an insult. Similarly, Heather’s pivot to French country picnic baskets delivered by Parisian dandies, wigs and baguets included, foundered on the problem of La Tina’s gluten allergies and the selection of non-pasteurized cheeses still didn’t address Morgan’s dairy issues. Heather was in tears and Connor feared that she might call off the wedding. Then he hit on the solution: hand-crafted silk mantillas along with massive bouquets of pale yellow calla lilies delivered by Frieda Kahlo look-a-likes complete with unibrows. The wedding was on and for an all too brief moment Connor was a hero.
Despite their having hired the best possible wedding planner, the preparations were complicated by their work demands. Word had spread about Connor’s amazing custom designed houses, thanks to a well-placed article in the Journal, and though his firm had plenty of resources to assist with his commissions, his projects demanded he travel to visit clients and the sites of their new mega mansions. In a typical week he found himself in Montecito one day and Fisher Island the next. Though the buildout of the 57th Street penthouse was going well, the two Maui homes were a mess and he desperately needed to be in London for at least a month to bring the Mayfair work up to his satisfaction. All the while he had to keep Heather from hysterics because he had yet to block out time to sample dishes for the reception dinner.
Connor had not planned on becoming an architect, it just sort of happened. He had accompanied Heather on a visit to the Harvard Graduate School of Design when she was trying to decide between Harvard, MIT, and Yale. The chaos of students packed in their overly individualized trays at Gund Hall scared Heather off of an architecture career while it intrigued Connor. So, he applied to Harvard on a whim and to his amazement, was accepted. Now he was cranking out luxury housing like there was no tomorrow. This unplanned success was one more reason he loved his life and couldn’t wait to see what it would throw at him next.
Heather, unfortunately, decided on the solid security of law school and though she had graduated at the top of her class, made law review, and landed a job at a white shoe firm, she was unhappy. The hours were long, the pressures were intense, and the rewards distant and uncertain. Would she make partner? What was she giving up to work seven days a week? Try as he might, unfortunately, he couldn’t convince Heather to relax and just let life happen.
Things finally blew up over the choice of a first dance song. “I dunno. How about something by The Smiths? You like their music,” was Connor’s first response. Heather almost threw her phone at him.
“You have refused to take any of this wedding planning seriously.” She gave him that look. “Our first dance has to be iconic. Slow, romantic, something classic like Sinatra.”
Connor frowned and thought. “How about ‘Come Fly with Me’?” Heather exploded.
“No! Life is serious. You can’t just skate through things and hope that they will all turn out for the best. We have to pick a song, have it choreographed, and practice it so that it all goes smoothly. Just once, please, damn it, humor me by being an adult.”
There were several times that spring he felt like just walking away. But he always stopped himself. In his few moments of self-reflection, he berated himself for even considering leaving Heather. Wasn’t that what she had told him was his biggest fault: his always acting on his urges and whims? And why should he fear a life with Heather, anyways? Didn’t things always work out well for him? Why should he start planning his future now when surfing the twists and turns of his life had always worked out so perfectly? Pushing his fears back into a dark distant place, he stuck with all the madness of wedding planning, and it turned out to be so beautiful, he was stunned at what they had created.
Part III. They break up
Heather had thought that as she approached forty, life would be easy. She was a partner at her firm, the kids were thriving in their top-of-the-line school, and she had learned how to manage Connor. Yet she hated everything about her life. She loathed that she was spending her days drawing up wills, administering family trusts, and hiding assets as couples divorced. She was angry that her work had grown out of Connor’s success: meeting his billionaire clients at social events resulted in them coming to her for their personal legal needs and to her horror she realized that she had built a career on her husband’s contacts. This was not how she had envisioned her legal career when she had decided on law school.
She didn’t hate her children, of course. But she was frustrated that they were just like their father and the family couldn’t plan a day or a week or a month without her pushing and prodding them. She had been self-sufficient in kindergarten; she recalled each time her efforts to organize a group outing blew up when someone remembered at the last minute that they had a game or a concert they were committed to. Why were her children so scatter-brained? Her older daughter couldn’t keep a pair of soccer shoes from running away from each other, her younger daughter had to be nagged to do her homework. And her son? If he wasn’t her own flesh and blood, she might have drowned him in the bathtub the third time he broke a pair of glasses by stepping on them.
It was Connor’s fault, obviously. He had grown more disorganized over time, not less. You’d think that a man who consistently managed several hundred million dollars in construction could at least organize himself enough to plug in his phone in the same place each night before he went to bed. No. Every morning there was the same whine, “Heather, do you know where my phone is?” He depended on her to keep his life from falling apart. She told Connor when he had a kid’s game, when to get a haircut, and when to be at the airport to travel to who knows where. Heather kept track of their social obligations and made sure he had clean shirts to pack on his business rips. She even kept the lines open with his equally disorganized father when otherwise the two would have let all communication lapse because they forgot to call each other.
This added to the burden of her full responsibility for childrearing. He adamantly denied any need to set boundaries for their kids or any effort to rein in the disorder of their lives, saying that his parents had never micromanaged him and he came out okay. If it was up to him, she believed, they would be little savages running around their great room at 3:00 a.m., chain smoking cigarettes and swigging whisky while they watched slasher movies. Heather made sure there was milk for the kids: almond for Naomi, soy for Drake, and oat for Alana—do you think she could rely on Connor, who just grabbed whatever he found in the refrigerator, to remember who drank what? She was in charge of buying their clothes, took them to the doctor for checkups, and stood over them to make sure they practiced the piano between lessons. She had to decide that Drake would play lacrosse like his father, the whole time her heart breaking because Connor was too out of touch to notice his son’s need for attention, and she found cheerleading for Naomi and soccer for Alana when they rejected her own basketball as the sport to specialize in. The only thing about Connor she didn’t have to manage was their lovemaking, which first slowed and now stopped as work, the kids’ schedules, and their growing dislike for each other pulled them apart. Heather ached for stability and yearned for predictability, but all Connor gave her was chaos.
Moreover, the demands of her law practice required her to bill over sixty hours a week, exhausting her. Battling fatigue, Heather found herself angry with Connor’s smug happiness, his calm as things were falling apart, and his inability to get excited about anything. She blamed him for the time Drake dyed his hair pink, or rather dyed most of his bathroom pink and got a little color in his hair. She screamed at the boy because someone had to enforce rules in the house. Connor’s initial reaction, before Heather shamed him into a more appropriate response, was to critique the shading of the boy’s fade. How could anyone put up with a husband like that?
Connor was only about the good times, she lamented. He loved going to see a play, but it was up to Heather to buy the tickets and hound him to show up at the theatre. Heather’s girlfriends all fretted that their husbands might be screwing their nannies; Heather worried that Connor would forget their nanny existed and accidently lock her out of the house. Fortunately, he rarely remembered where he had left his keys.
The final blow up came when Connor forgot to pick up Drake’s asthma medicine on the way home from work. In one sense, his walking in empty handed was trivial, Heather always made sure that Drake had a backup supply just in case something like this happened. But when a marriage is stretched and strained as this one was, a sin like this could be mortal.
“So, I forgot. What’s the big deal? I’ll go right out and pick it up. The pharmacy is open until 8:00.” Though his hair was beginning to thin, at times Heather could swear that Connor was still a twenty-one-year-old lost boy improvising his way through life.
“It’s a big deal because I can’t rely on you for anything. To get the smallest thing done I have to nag you, remind you, and check up on you. Drake is more reliable than you and he is twelve. Seriously, Connor, when are you going to start acting like an adult?” This big house, her life, and especially her husband were traps holding her down. He made her feel unable to be the woman she had wanted to be. Connor sapped her energy and drained the happiness out of her life. When did she stop loving him? she wondered. At what point did she realize that he was incapable of change?
“It’s only a big deal because you blow it up. You always do that, Heather. Some little thing doesn’t get done your exact way and you explode. Every. Damn. Time. You know what it’s like to have to walk around always afraid you will get upset?”
“I’ll show you upset,” she shouted as she heard the kids’ doors close upstairs. They were used to their fights. “Yelling is the only thing that gets results out of you. It’s the only way I can get you to take some responsibility around here.” Heather was all over the room, pacing from the television to the glass doors that led to the patio and back again, stopping only to put a magazine on the coffee table back in its proper place. Connor was on the sofa, tightly gripping the arm as if were afraid that if he released it, he would hit the ceiling.
“Calm down, Heather,” he shouted. “You are over-reacting.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down.” Her fury surprised her. She had wanted to end the marriage for a long time now, but this was not how she planned to do it. She had hoped to sit Connor down after the kids had gone to bed and calmly lay out her reasons for a divorce. But she was too angry. And her fury was intensified because once again, Connor was making her abandon her preferred methodical way of approaching life for his hated spontaneous ways. His disorganized style was dominating her plans once again. This was going to be the last time she ran her life on Connor’s passive ways, she vowed. “I hate this. I hate you. I hate everything about you.” She was channeling Connor and she hated herself.
The worst part of the breakup was that Connor didn’t care what she thought about him. The final horror was that he no longer cared how she felt. He had ended his participation in their marriage just as much as she had, and his abandonment added to her hurt.
So it ended, just shy of twenty years. Some were good. Many were bad. Had she learned anything about herself, she wondered? Had she grown? Or had the past two decades been a long retreat into a life she had never wanted? At least now she would be free to be the woman she had always planned to be.