All We Ever Wanted
It started out as a typical Saturday night. And by typical, I don’t mean normal in any mainstream American way. There was no grilling out with the neighbors or going to the movies or doing any of the things I did as a kid. It was simply typical for what we’d become since Kirk sold his software company, and we went from comfortable to wealthy. Very wealthy.
Obscene was the description my childhood best friend Julie once used—not about us, but about Melanie, another friend—after Melanie bought herself a diamond Rolex for Mother’s Day and then offhandedly remarked at one of our dinner parties that homemade pottery from her kids “wasn’t going to cut it.”
“She could feed a Syrian refugee camp for an entire year with that watch,” Julie had groused in my kitchen after the other guests had departed. “It’s obscene.”
I’d nodded noncommittally, hiding my own Cartier under the edge of our marble island, as I silently reassured myself with all the ways my watch, and therefore my life, were different from Melanie’s. For one, I didn’t buy the watch for myself on a whim; Kirk gave it to me for our fifteenth anniversary. For another, I had always loved when our son, Finch, made me presents and cards in his younger years, and was sad that those had become relics of the past.
Most important, I don’t think I ever flaunted our wealth. If anything, it embarrassed me. As a result, Julie didn’t hold our money against me. She didn’t know our exact worth but had a general sense of it, especially after she’d gone house hunting with me when Kirk was too busy, helping me find our home on Belle Meade Boulevard, where we now lived. She and her husband and girls were regular guests at our lake house and our home on Nantucket, just as she happily inherited my gently used designer hand-me-downs.
Occasionally Julie would call Kirk out, though, not for being showy like Melanie but for having elitist tendencies. A fourth-generation silver-spoon Nashvillian, my husband grew up ensconced in a private-school, country-club world, so he’d had some practice at being a snob, even back when his money was merely old, and not yet obscene. In other words, Kirk came from a “good family”—that elusive term that nobody ever came out and defined, yet we all knew was code for having old money and a certain well-bred, refined taste. As in: he’s a Browning.
My maiden name, Silver, held no such status, not even by the standards of Bristol, the town on the Tennessee-Virginia border where I grew up and Julie still lived. We were no slouches—my dad wrote for the Bristol Herald Courier and my mom was a fourth-grade teacher—but we were squarely middle class, and our idea of living large was everyone ordering dessert at a nonchain restaurant. Looking back, I wonder if that may have explained my mom’s preoccupation with money. It wasn’t that she was impressed with it, but she could always tell you who had it and who did not, who was cheap and who was living beyond their means. Then again, my mom could pretty much tell you anything about anyone in Bristol. She wasn’t a gossip—at least not a mean-spirited one—she was simply fascinated by other people’s business, from their wealth and health to their politics and religion.
Incidentally, my dad is Jewish and my mother Methodist. Live and let live is their mantra, an outlook that was passed on to both my brother, Max, and me, the two of us embracing the more attractive elements of each religion, like Santa Claus and Seders, while punting Jewish guilt and Christian judgment. This was a good thing, especially for Max, who came out during college. My parents didn’t miss a beat. If anything, they seemed more uncomfortable with Kirk’s money than with my brother’s sexuality, at least when we first began to date. My mother had insisted that she was just sad I wouldn’t be getting back together with Teddy, my high school boyfriend, whom she adored, but I sometimes sensed a slight inferiority complex, and her worry that the Brownings were somehow looking down on me and my family.
To be fair, a half-Jewish girl from Bristol with a gay brother and no trust fund probably wasn’t their first choice for their only child. Hell, I probably wasn’t Kirk’s first choice on paper, either. But what can I say? He picked me anyway. I’d always told myself that he fell in love with my personality—with me—the same way I fell in love with him. But in the past couple of years I had begun to wonder about both of us, and what had brought us together in college.
I had to admit that when discussing our relationship, Kirk often referenced my looks. He always had. So I’d be naïve to think that my appearance had nothing to do with why we were together—just as I knew, deep down, that the patina and security of a “good family” had, in part, attracted me to him.
I hated everything about that admission, but it was definitely on my mind that Saturday night as Kirk and I took an Uber to the Hermitage Hotel for about our fifth gala of the year. We had become that couple, I remember thinking in the back of that black Lincoln Town Car—the husband and wife in an Armani tux and a Dior gown who were barely speaking. Something was off in our relationship. Was it the money? Had Kirk become too obsessed with it? Had I somehow lost myself as Finch grew older and I spent less time mothering him and more time in the role of full-time philanthropist?
I thought about one of my dad’s recent remarks, asking why my friends and I didn’t just skip the galas—and give all the money to charity. My mom had chimed in that we might be able to accomplish “more meaningful work in blue jeans than black tie.” I had gotten defensive, reminding them that I did that sort of hands-on work, too, such as the hours I spent every month answering calls on Nashville’s suicide helpline. Of course I hadn’t admitted to my parents that Kirk sometimes minimized that kind of volunteering, insisting that I was better off “just writing the check.” In his mind, a donation of dollars always trumped time; the fact that it came with more splash and credit was beside the point.
Kirk was a good man, I told myself now, as I watched him take a swallow of the bourbon roadie that he’d poured into a red Solo cup. I was being too hard on him. On both of us.
“You look fabulous,” he suddenly said, looking over at me, softening me further. “That dress is incredible.”
“Thanks, honey,” I said in a low voice.
“I can’t wait to take it off you,” he whispered, so the driver wouldn’t hear him. He gave me a seductive look, then took another drink.
I smiled, thinking that it had been a while, and resisted the urge to tell him that he might want to slow down on the booze. Kirk didn’t have a drinking problem, but it was a rare night that he didn’t at least catch a red-wine buzz. Maybe that was it, I thought. We definitely both needed to ease up on our social calendars. Be less distracted. More present. Maybe that would come when Finch went to college in the fall.
“So. Who have you told? About Princeton?” he asked, clearly thinking about Finch, too, and the acceptance letter he’d just received the day before.
“Other than family, only Julie and Melanie,” I said. “What about you?”
“Just the guys in my foursome today,” he said, rattling off the names of his usual golf buddies. “I didn’t want to brag . . . but I couldn’t help myself.”
His expression mirrored the way I felt—a mix of pride and disbelief. Finch was a good student, and had gotten into Vanderbilt and Virginia earlier that winter. But Princeton had been a long shot, and his admittance felt like a culmination and validation of so many parenting decisions, beginning with applying Finch to Windsor Academy, the most rigorous and prestigious private school in Nashville, when he was only five years old. Since then, we had always prioritized our son’s education, hiring private tutors when needed, exposing him to the arts, and taking him to virtually every corner of the globe. Over the past three summers, we had sent him on a service trip to Ecuador, to a cycling camp in France, and on a marine biology course in the Galápagos Islands. I recognized, of course, that we were at a distinct financial advantage over so many other applicants, and something about that (especially the check we’d written to Princeton’s endowment) made me feel a little guilty. But I told myself that money alone couldn’t gain a kid admission to the Ivy League. Finch had worked hard, and I was so proud of him.
Focus on that, I told myself. Focus on the positive.
Kirk was looking at his phone again, so I pulled mine out, too, checking Instagram. Finch’s girlfriend, Polly, had just posted a photo of the two of them, the caption reading: We’re both Tigers, y’all! Clemson and Princeton, here we come! I showed the picture to Kirk, then read aloud some of the congratulatory comments from children of our friends who would be in attendance tonight.
“Poor Polly,” Kirk said. “They won’t last a semester.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant the distance between South Carolina and New Jersey or the mere reality of young love, but I murmured my agreement, trying not to think of the condom wrapper that I’d recently found under Finch’s bed. The discovery was far from a surprise, but it still made me sad, thinking of how much he had grown up and changed. He used to be such a little chatterbox, a precocious only child regaling me with every detail of his day. There was nothing I hadn’t known about him, nothing he wouldn’t have shared. But with puberty came an onset of remoteness that never really cleared, and in recent months, we’d talked very little, no matter how hard I tried to break down his barriers. Kirk insisted it was normal, all part of a boy’s preparation to leave the nest. You worry too much, he always told me.
I put my phone back in my bag, sighed, and said, “Are you ready for tonight?”
“Ready for what?” he asked, draining his bourbon as we turned onto Sixth Avenue.
“Our speech?” I said, meaning his speech, though I would be standing beside him, offering him moral support.
Kirk gave me a blank stare. “Speech? Remind me? Which gala is this, again?”
“I hope you’re kidding?”
“It’s hard to keep them all straight—”
I sighed and said, “The Hope Gala, honey.”
“And we are hoping for what, exactly?” he asked with a smirk.
“Suicide awareness and prevention,” I said. “We’re being honored, remember?”
“For what?” he asked, now starting to annoy me.
“The work we did bringing mental health experts to Nashville,” I said, even though we both knew it had much more to do with the fifty-thousand-dollar donation we’d given after a freshman at Windsor took her life last summer. It was too horrible for me to process, even all these months later.
“I’m kidding,” Kirk said, as he reached out to pat my leg. “I’m ready.”
I nodded, thinking that Kirk was always ready. Always on. The most confident, competent man I’d ever known.
A moment later, we pulled up to the hotel. A handsome young valet swung open my door, issuing a brisk welcome. “Will you be checking in tonight, madame?” he asked.
I told him no, we were here for the gala. He nodded, offering me his hand, as I gathered the folds of my black lace gown and stepped onto the sidewalk. Ahead of me, I saw Melanie chatting amid a cluster of friends and acquaintances. The usual crowd. She rushed toward me, giving me air kisses and compliments.
“You look amazing, too. Are those new?” I reached up to her face, my fingertips grazing the most gorgeous chandelier diamond earrings.
“Newly acquired but vintage,” she said. “Latest apology from you know who.”
I smiled and glanced around for her husband. “Where is Todd, anyway?”