NEA Literature Fellowships

Leah Stewart

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel Husband and Wife

"Sarah," he said, "I have to tell you something. Something about the book."

When you live with a writer you know what he means by the book. He means his book, the one he's working on, or, as in this case, the one he recently finished, the one that had arrived that very day in the form of advance reader copies. Three of them in a big padded envelope, with shiny covers and my husband's picture on the back. We'd exclaimed over them. We'd showed them to our daughter, and laughed at how little she was impressed. We'd high-fived, only half-joking, over the note from my husband's editor: This is going to be the big one!

"What about the book?" I asked.

He took a breath. "Not all of it is fiction."

"What do you mean?" I asked. I asked, but I already knew. I knew what he meant, though that knowledge was contained not in my brain, not yet, but in a space that began to open inside my stomach, slowly, a black circle, expanding like an aperture. I'd read the book. I'd edited it, for God's sake. I knew it intimately, word by word. But I wouldn't even have had to read it to know what he meant. It was right there in the title: Infidelity. I knew what he meant before he said it, and knowing, I would have liked to stop him, but he said it before I could.

He said, "I cheated on you."

"What?" I said, because knowing is different from believing. And then, "We have to go to a wedding." That seemed relevant at the time.

And there you have it--the beginning of the end, as people like to say, as though there were such a thing, as though the beginning and the beginning of the end weren't one and the same.


I was not a stay-at-home mother, in case all this talk about feeding the baby and dressing my husband has given that impression. I was, in fact, the primary--or at least the most consistent--breadwinner, working as the business manager in the Neurobiology department at Duke. We'd managed, since the kids, to cobble together a schedule that gave my husband time to work--Mattie went to preschool in the mornings, so he had the baby's naptime to himself, and I took the kids all day Sunday and sometimes on Saturdays so he could write. The plan had been for him to write in the evenings, too, but he was often too tired, so we were looking for someone who could come in a couple mornings a week. He was frustrated by how much his progress had slowed since the babies came.

He was frustrated, yes, but he was nevertheless a good stay-at-home parent. He was good with the kids, and he did a lot around the house--far, far more, he liked to tell me with a self-righteous air, than most men. Why, spending so much more time in the house than I did, he could never find anything that was in it--that was a mystery neither of us could solve. But let's stay focused, for now, on his transgression. On my own strange reaction: "We have to go to a wedding." You keep thinking you have a life together, you know, a life whose primary story and struggle is parenthood and its pleasures and difficulties. You keep thinking that even when you've just been told differently. It turns out you go on thinking that for quite some time.

He said, "I cheated on you," and I said, "What? We have to go to a wedding."

"I don't deserve you," he said. "I don't deserve for you to find my shoe." And then he started to cry. He looked small, and faintly ridiculous, hunched over at the end of the bed, clutching his shoe. He's a slender man, my husband. You might say skinny. This gives him an unfairly boyish appearance, that and the fact that he wears his hair a little on the shaggy side, and that it curls at the nape of his neck in a way I'd always found adorable. I could see those curls clearly at that moment because his head was bowed, and I wondered if she'd liked them, too, this unnamed woman whose name I never wanted to know. He wears glasses, but he wasn't wearing them then, because he'd put in his contacts in anticipation of going out, and on the whole he looked very nice in his suit and the blue shirt I'd bought for him. His eyes are the sort that can look blue or gray or green depending on what he's wearing, and I'd bought this shirt specifically to bring out the blue. The hair on his neck was a little overgrown, and I wondered if he even knew that. If he knew that he had a mole on the lower left side of his back. If he knew that his lips moved slightly when he was thinking about something he was writing. I knew his body better than he did. I'd known him a long time. He was my husband.

Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Body of a Girl (Penguin, 2001), The Myth of You and Me (Three Rivers Press, 2006) and Husband and Wife, published by Harper in May, 2010. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and has been a visiting writer at Vanderbilt, Sewanee, and Murray State University. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati.

Photo by Carolyn Ebbitt

Author's Statement

I've applied for an NEA fellowship every year that I've been eligible, without much expectation of winning. When the call came that I was one of this year's recipients, I was so stunned it took me a few moments to speak. When I finally absorbed the news, I was beyond thrilled. The money is of course an enormous boon, allowing me to pay for childcare that opens up my schedule to writing. But the psychological effect of being selected by a panel of writers I admire is perhaps even more important. I feel buoyed, and reenergized, and I thank you for that.