December 18, 1998
Despite his best efforts to keep the remainder of the session on an even keel, Bill could barely breathe by the time it – finally, thank God – ended. The gradual souring of his wife’s mood rested, suffocatingly heavy, on his chest, filling his lungs with every inhalation, air thick and icy sharp. Unhappy. Nervous. A simmering anger. Curiously, he felt it wasn’t directed at him, but he couldn’t quite place it or sense its target as he usually did. He tried in vain to skirt around subjects he knew unsettled her. Unfortunately, those were the most substantive (the women, his mother, more women, the impeachment, how each agonizingly slow tick of the clock brought him ever closer to the moment of execution) and Tobias, in all his professional diligence, could not let them slide. Bill was still holding back; all three of them knew it. Even Hillary, staring stonily with furrowed brow at her cuticles.
And then, at last, freedom. Bill didn’t quite know what do with it. Half a bag of Cheetos later, it was still bothering him. ‘Worse things than infidelity.’ He’d never, in twenty-seven years, heard Dorothy utter that particular chestnut. She wouldn’t say it to him, he supposed, but it still struck him as odd. “What did she mean?” he asked, offering a dusty orange snack to Hillary, immersed in a book and her second glass of wine. Predictably, she demurred.
“Who? What did they mean by what?” She was more relaxed – marginally – than when they’d initially retreated to the living room, but the words still came with a slight snap.
“Your mother. About cheating. Was she – talking about me?” Bill’s stomach plummeted down to that horribly familiar bottomless pit where it so often seemed to reside these days. Christmas with the Rodhams became a still-more dreadful proposal.
“No.” One word, crisply delivered with eyes still locked onto the same page she’d been reading for upwards of ten minutes. Nothing further appeared to be forthcoming. Then – “Not at first, anyway.”
Hillary’s distaste for unnecessary lies outweighed even her desire to abandon this topic and never return. He saw the opening and seized it, the cogs of his brain finally catching up to the obvious. Obvious, that is, save for the feet of clay it gave Hugh Rodham, stalwart bastion of conservative. Judge, jury, and executioner when it came to deviations, however minor, from his rigid expectations.
The bafflement was plain to hear. Given the views on sexual activity he had heard espoused (pontificated on, really) over the decades of their fraught acquaintance – it was solely for procreation and should not be entered into outside the bonds of matrimony; any man who engaged in such frivolities was guilty of an intolerable lack of self-control; any woman so afflicted with moral turpitude was little better than a harlot – the prospect that that persona was a hypocritical front was nothing short of mind-boggling.
“No!” Her response came so quickly that it was clearly reflex more than anything else. “I mean – I don’t know.” Bill waited. “Mom never said… that, exactly. I’ve wondered. Sometimes. When he was gone on business trips or was out late. Didn’t get back before bedtime. But – I don’t know.”
“When did you start wondering?”
“Twelve or thirteen. It happened before that, too. Him not being there. Honestly, a lot of the time it was kind of a relief.” She pressed her lips together tightly, abruptly: the look she always adopted when she’d said more than she intended.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, gingerly inching closer. Hillary allowed his arm to slip around her shoulders. “I’ve been there, too. You know that.”
She whipped around to face him, eyes brimming. A picture of rapidly crumbling defiance. “That’s not – they’re not even comparable experiences.”
“He hurt you,” he repeated for what must have been the thousandth time, but no less gently for it. Getting her to accept that simple fact, much less believe it, was still a long way off. “It’s not a competition. He hurt you, and that’s what counts.”
As usual, she barely acknowledged the assertion. “What I mean is…” Hillary trailed off. She meant that it was a temporary reprieve from homework inspections. The scathing critiques of every aspect of her being that made her feel what it must be like to be eviscerated, flayed alive. The belt, the palm or the back of his hand. That tight grip sometimes leaving marks on her wrists or upper arms. And the shouting. Worst of all, the shouting – the endless, thundering litany of her faults, the diatribes both political and devastatingly personal. Directed at her, the boys, her mother, or no one in particular. The world at large. It allowed her one night, at least, when she could go to bed with a quiet mind, questions of whether she was or ever would be good enough muffled for the time being. And it all still paled next to what Bill and her own mother had endured. She had never been beaten. Not really. She had never been neglected, gone unfed, uncared for. It was no worse than the upbringings of many, and far, far better than those of so many whose lives had touched her own. Why couldn’t she reach that blessed state of being, at long last, “over it” – assuming that there was even something for her to get over? Her father had been dead for five years; anything approximating abuse had been over long before that. Yet here she was. Still fixated. Still broken.
“Anyway.” Hillary obstinately refused to give in to the tears that had been brewing for much of the evening, blinking them back even as they started rolling down her cheeks. Not yet. “I don’t think that was what Mom was talking about.” Bill rubbed her back through red wool, pacifying her until she was ready to proceed. “It’s – not being – loved – in the first place is worse than being cheated on. She knew what that felt like. Better than anyone.” He nodded. “And when you’re loved, you shouldn’t throw it all away over something so stupid.”
“Over me being so stupid.”
“She knows you’re better than that just as well as I do. But you don’t. That’s the problem.” She corrected herself swiftly. That was letting herself off the hook far too easily. “One of the problems. I’m not much help, either. And don’t you dare say I’m perfect.”
“I think you are.” Hillary rolled her eyes, letting loose a small sob in the process. “Mostly.”
She laughed, and the torrent was unleashed.
Bill was thankful, in a way. Much as it tore at his heart to see her in such pain, ate at him to feel the warm, spreading tearstains soaking into his chest, taking care of her was infinitely preferable to thinking about tomorrow. What lay ahead. Here, it was just the two of them. He could soothe and protect her, however fleetingly, and she could be that willful little girl who refused, even through her weeping, to tell him where it hurt.
‘Why don’t you tell me? Why won’t you tell me?’
The frustrating refrain pulsed through his skull, pounding maddeningly, relentlessly. His ever-active imagination concocted episodes from Hillary’s childhood, clutching at inferences and implications. Hoping he was going overboard, exaggerating, feeling almost positive that he was – transposing Hillary into his own memories, most likely – but feeling that debilitating uncertainty. Bill couldn’t know unless she told him.
And maybe she wouldn’t tell him unless he asked.