American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

PROLOGUE

June 2007, the White House

HAVE I MADE terrible mistakes?

In bed beside me, my husband sleeps, his breathing deep and steady. Early in our marriage, really in the first weeks, when he snored, I’d say his name aloud, and when he responded, I’d apologetically request that he turn onto his side. But it didn’t take long for him to convey that he’d prefer if I simply shoved him; no conversation was necessary, and he didn’t want to be awakened. “Just roll me over,” he said, and grinned. “Give me a good hard push.” This felt rude, but I learned to do it.

Tonight, though, he isn’t snoring, so I cannot blame my insomnia on him. Nor can I blame the temperature of the room (sixty-six degrees during the night, seventy degrees during the day, when neither of us spends almost any time here). A white-noise machine hums discreetly from its perch on a shelf, and the shades and draperies are drawn to keep us in thick darkness. There are always, in our lives now, security concerns, but these have become routine, and more than once I’ve thought we must be far safer than a typical middle-class couple in the suburbs; they have a burglar alarm, or perhaps a Jack Russell terrier, a spotlight at one exterior corner of the house, and we have snipers and helicopters, armored cars, rocket launchers and sharpshooters on the roof. The risks for us are greater, yes, but the level of protection is incomparable—absurd at times. As with so much else, I tell myself it is our positions that are being deferred to, that we are simply symbols; who we are as individuals hardly matters. It would embarrass me otherwise to think of all the expense and effort put forth on our behalf. If not us, I repeat to myself, then others would play this same role.

For several nights, I’ve had trouble sleeping. It’s not going to bed in the first place that’s the challenge: I feel all the normal stages of weariness, the lack of focus that becomes more pronounced with each half hour past ten o’clock, and when I climb beneath the covers, usually a little after eleven, sometimes my husband is still in the bathroom or looking over a last few papers, talking to me from across the room, and I drift away. When he comes to bed, he cradles me, I rise back out from the sea of sleep, we say “I love you” to each other, and in the blurriness of this moment, I believe that something essential is still ours; that our bodies in darkness are what’s true and most everything else—the exposure and the obligations and the controversies—is fabrication and pretense. When I wake around two, however, I fear the reverse.

I am not sure whether waking at two is better or worse than waking at four. On the one hand, I have the luxury of knowing that eventually, I’ll fall back to sleep; on the other hand, the night seems so long. Usually, I’ve been dreaming of the past: of people I once knew who are now gone, or people with whom my relationship has changed to the point of unrecognizability. There is so much I’ve experienced that I never could have imagined.

Did I jeopardize my husband’s presidency today? Did I do something I should have done years ago? Or perhaps I did both, and that’s the problem—that I lead a life in opposition to itself.

PART I

1272 Amity Lane

IN 1954, THE summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. I’d accompanied my grandmother to the grocery store—that morning, while reading a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, she’d been seized by a desire to have some herself and had taken me along on the walk to town—and it was in the canned-goods section that we encountered Andrew, who was with his mother. Not being of the same generation, Andrew’s mother and my grandmother weren’t friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley, Wisconsin, did. Andrew’s mother was the one who approached us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my grandmother, “Mrs. Lindgren, it’s Florence Imhof. How are you?”

Andrew and I had been classmates for as long as we’d been going to school, but we merely eyed each other without speaking. We both were eight. As the adults chatted, he picked up a can of peas and held it by securing it between his flat palm and his chin, and I wondered if he was showing off.

This was when my grandmother shoved me a little. “Alice, say hello to Mrs. Imhof.” As I’d been taught, I extended my hand. “And isn’t your daughter darling,” my grandmother continued, gesturing toward Andrew, “but I don’t believe I know her name.”

A silence ensued during which I’m pretty sure Mrs. Imhof was deciding how to correct my grandmother. At last, touching her son’s shoulder, Mrs. Imhof said, “This is Andrew. He and Alice are in the same class over at the school.”