I took in my first foster husband when I was thirty-eight. I knew, by then, that I would never have a husband of my own, and I wanted to do some good in the world. Fostering these abandoned men was a way to give back. There are so many husbands lost in system—you don’t hear about them much, but they’re there—so many husbands looking for a forever home. I would be the one to help.
They say your first foster husband changes you most, but I was forty-three when I met Mr. Lionel Holm. I had a full house at the time: four husbands—all ages, all kinds of troubles. It was a big job every morning, fixing four settings of bacon, eggs, toast, and orange juice. Bringing each husband a copy of the daily newspaper. Giving each a short but motivational pep talk: “You’re looking extra handsome this morning,” or “I’m sure a raise is right around the corner.” And to maintain structure in their lives, I also said things like, “Remember to take out the trash,” or “Be sure to give Spot his walk.”
My methods were straightforward but effective.
Mr. Holm’s caseworker showed up on a Wednesday afternoon. She said she was sorry she hadn’t called ahead, though she did not appear apologetic. Agitation crackled through her perm as she paced my living room. Her white pumps were scuffed; her shoulder pads lumped too low, like errant biceps. It was unlike the woman—usually fastidious, a staunch adherent to agency policy—to grab my shoulder, much less to say, “I’ve got a promotion on the line, but this guy—” She trailed off. Her grip softened. “Please, Claudette, you’re the best we’ve got.”
Like I said, I wanted to make a difference in the world. Husbands without loving homes could end up on the streets, eating junk food, openly farting, harassing young women, impersonating dead celebrities, joining white-supremacists groups. I didn’t have much space left in my house—my resources were already stretched thin—but with the caseworker pleading, I said OK. I’d had tough husbands before. Husbands who got aggressive, husbands who skipped work to hit the bars, husbands addicted to porn, and I’d worked hard to set boundaries for them. I established a safe and supportive environment. There were La-Z-Boy recliners in the living room, the PGA Tour playing like a lullaby on TV. Once a week, I organized simple home-repair projects as self-confidence boosters. Birdhouse installation. Grill maintenance. Garage door greasing. To be honest, I was proud of what I had accomplished: how I’d helped so many men get back on their feet. Though I’d never been good at much of anything, I was good at fostering husbands—even great.
But Mr. Holm.
As was customary among foster husbands, he arrived at my house in his own vehicle: a red Cadillac convertible. Such sports cars were not an uncommon sight in my line of work. He must have hit his midlife crisis hard, I thought. Must have become a real monster. Maybe he’d started a garage band, or begun metal-detecting on public beaches, or become interested in nudist colonies. Why else would the caseworker have fled as soon as I signed the paperwork?
When Mr. Holm stepped out of his Cadillac, however, he seemed anything but monstrous. He was trim, about six feet tall, and dressed in a tailored pinstripe suit, his silvery hair perfectly coiffed. He took my hand and bowed slightly. His palm was warm, well-moisturized. “A pleasure to meet you,” he said.
Foster husbands never behaved this way. Usually, they slumped or waddled into my home without looking at me, going directly into the bathroom for some private time, before emerging puffy-eyed for chocolate chip cookies and a mug of coffee. Usually, it took a week of gentle coaxing to even begin getting acquainted.
Mr. Holm pulled a single hyacinth blossom from his sleeve, handed it to me. “My lady,” he said, bowing slightly.
I did something I hadn’t in years: I blushed.
Mr. Holm led me inside, as if welcoming me into my own home. “Please have a seat,” he said, pulling out a kitchen chair. Then he reached into a cabinet and produced a bottle of champagne I had long ago received as a gift. He poured us each a glass. “To us,” he said, clinking his glass against mine. Champagne sloshed over the side. Mr. Holm winked. I was so enchanted I didn’t bother with the spill.
Upon returning from their respective workplaces, the other foster husbands made their unhappiness known. Quarters had been tight already, and with a fifth foster husband, the line to the bathroom that afternoon did become long. Admittedly, Mr. Holm spent extra time meticulously shaving and grooming himself. But it was also nice to be around someone who put effort into his appearance. And he was so charming, so regal, so kind. Though I was dismayed, initially, to discover Mr. Holm had brought his pet ferret, Ruffles turned out to be equally well-mannered, nuzzling my hand and making soft, mewing noises. I had never picked favorites before—doing so was utterly discouraged in the Loving Homes for Lost & Broken Men guidebook—but how could I not favor my newest addition? Mr. Holm could discuss sports, stocks, politics, fashion, cooking, and literature with equal and effortless grace. “I agree that Emma is underrated,” he said. “But what is your stance on Northanger Abbey?” He seemed too good to be true, especially when he told me to put on my best dress. He would be taking me out to dinner. When I explained, blushing, that I couldn’t leave the other foster husbands unattended, he didn’t bat an eye. “I’ve made a reservation for six,” he said, “at La Strayvard.” The best restaurant in town.
How long had it been since someone took me out? Well over twenty years? Twenty-five? Back in the days when I still believed I might have a husband of my own, there’d been one close call. Mark Fabermore. My high school sweetheart. I pushed the thought aside as we entered the restaurant, concentrating on the atmosphere of winking chandeliers and violin solos and plushly upholstered seats. Waiters brought us arugula salads with truffle dressing. Wine. Roast goose. Potatoes and cream. Chocolate cake. Brandy. Even the other husbands, squished together in a semicircle around the table, napkins tucked into their shirt collars, could not help getting into the spirit of things. Mr. Holm beamed at everyone, though mostly at me. I beamed back. A feeling stirred inside me, so unfamiliar that at first I thought it might be indigestion. Hope, I finally realized. Curdled by unease.
One of the cardinal rules of caring for foster husbands is that you remain supportive yet detached. That you care without becoming too close. To do otherwise violates your role at transitional vehicle. You are there to support the husbands as the courts work things out, make arrangements. Sometimes forever homes are found. Or permanent residencies with family members—brothers most often—and sometimes husbands return to their lawful wives after counseling. It happens. It would be cruel, when fostering a husband, to confuse his feelings by getting too close.
Cruel, also, for the caretaker.
I knew all of this. I knew, also, I had none of Mr. Holm’s case history—his file contained little more than physical stats—and so whether he had left his wife, or if his wife had left him, or, worse, if she had passed away, remained a mystery. And yet, instead of worrying about the uncertainty of his past, I found myself considering my own future: was I really too old to have a husband of my own?
Mr. Holm reached under the dinner table and took my hand.
The other foster husbands chatted contently as we left the restaurant, their bellies swollen from the meal, cigars speared in their mouths—gifted by Mr. Holm, who off-handedly mentioned a business partner in Cuba. When we arrived home, he held the door open for everyone. Made pleasant inside jokes with the other husbands, as if they had been pals for years. Then he exhaled a good-natured yawn. “Well,” he said, “it’s high time for my forty winks.”
At these words, the other husbands froze, cigars drooping. I could see their heads ticking through possible sleeping arrangements. There weren’t many options. One foster husband was already lodged in the guest room, two more on the La-Z-Boys in the living room, a fourth in a sleeping bag in the craft room. Where else to go?
There was the bathtub, but to make him sleep there seemed unethical. Against the Code of Caring.
“Well,” I murmured, without meeting anyone’s eye. “I do have a sizeable bed.”
The other husbands’ faces flushed. An argument ensued. There was much pouting. At least one kitchen chair was pushed over. It didn’t matter. In the mêlée, Mr. Holm tiptoed upstairs to my room. I found him waiting on my bed in a fluffy white bathrobe.
He winked at me. Patted a spot on the coverlet beside him. “You must be exhausted,” he said. “Let me give you a neck rub.”
To accept his offer was wrong, I knew. It was unfair to the others. It would mean crossing a line that could not be uncrossed. “I can’t,” I said, looking away.
“It’s only a neck rub.”
But what of the others? How many loads of laundry had I done without a thank you? How many meals had I cooked? I wanted to do good in the world, but part of me also longed for appreciation.
I went to him. I couldn’t help it. He smelled like the expensive stores at the mall: of silk shirts and fancy ointments and mahogany-paneled libraries and his well-trained ferret, which could probably do tricks. There was something else there, too, something deeper. Retirement packages. Anniversary dinners. Public speeches at charity events in which I was hailed as a loving and supportive partner.
Mr. Holm smelled like gratitude.
His hands eased along my neck, then up the base of my head, fingers twirling strands of my hair. My hair: dyed coffee-table brown, limp as seaweed. How I looked hadn’t mattered in years. Sometimes I forgot my body existed. But now, I became newly aware of my hips, the rise and fall of my breasts. A shiver shot through me. Mr. Holm absorbed it; his fingers gained energy. He whispered into my ear, “Oh, sweet Claudette.”
The words made me dizzy. Motion diffused with memory, and I went spinning back across the decades, back to when Mark Fabermore had whispered the same words, to when my body was slender and smooth and I was sixteen and Mark was eighteen and we pressed ourselves into one another, kissing until our lips became puffy and raw, leaving red welts on each other’s necks as if we were mollusks, back when we knew each other’s secrets and were from a small town and we felt like the king and queen of that town and our love was an empire that knew no limits.
Mr. Holm eased a hand, delicately, under my nightgown.
I had loved Mark. I had loved his serious eyes, the way his ears turned red when he felt something deeply. I had loved how he knew the capital of every country in the world, including Nauru. I had loved that he was an outfielder for the baseball team and how when I stood near him during games—just over the fence—he could never resist looking over at me. I had loved that his favorite meal was grilled trout with buttered corn.
We were reclining now—Mr. Holm and I—our limbs entwined.
Mark had proposed the day I turned eighteen. He’d said it wouldn’t be any trouble at all, me commuting from the university to see him. It wouldn’t change my chance for an education. It wouldn’t change anything.
Mr. Holm switched off the bedside lamp.
But I had known girls who got married young, girls who had given up the chance to be a little wild. To have a big life: expansive and unpredictable and free.
“Oh Claudette, sweet Claudette.”
So I’d told Mark no. I’d given him up. It hurt terribly, but at the time it had seemed the kindest choice for both of us: cutting ties. I wanted us both to live the best version of our lives. I never found out if he did. It seemed easier if I never asked. Yet all these years later, I still see Mark’s face, disbelieving and hurt, his ears turning red as I told him my choice. And my life hasn’t turned out to be wild and expansive after all.
Do not form strong attachments, the agency tells you, over and over, when you’re training to supervise foster husbands. This only leads to disappointment. Always I’d thought myself above such mistakes. It was my gift: caring detachment.
Lying against one another in the darkness of my bedroom, Mr. Holm’s lips brushed my earlobes. “Let’s run away together,” he whispered.
My bedside clock read 3:12 a.m. I was tired, but I played along. “Where would we go?”
“Las Vegas,” he said. “We should get married as soon as possible. We could leave tomorrow morning.”
I turned on the bedside lamp, studied his face.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
He nodded, a few strands of silvery hair sliding into his face as he smiled a hopeful smile. My heart leapt and cavorted.
Was it crazy he made me such an offer so soon after meeting? It was. But I had so distanced myself from love that I couldn’t remember what love really meant. I knew it only as something seen through a telescope: a distant planet I’d nearly given up visiting. Perhaps it was love, what Mr. Holm and I had between us. It was crazy, yes, for him to propose so soon after meeting. But wasn’t love by definition a form of insanity?
Mr. Holm began kissing me again. Maybe it was the wine. His cologne scent. The late hour. I felt far away from my body: a universe of particles spread out and expanding.
It’s a thankless job fostering husbands.
What had people said to me when I turned down Mark? That I was cruel. Unjust. Unforgivably selfish.
How long was I going to continue punishing myself?
“Yes,” I told Mr. Holm. “Yes, let’s get married.”
Our departure was a blur. We left before dawn, before the other foster husbands woke. I tried not to consider what would happen when they did. How confused they would be. How lost. How much more broken it might make them. I didn’t want to confront them, so I tiptoed out, one hand holding a suitcase, one hand entwined in Mr. Holm’s, past the guest room, the La-Z-Boys, through the kitchen—the table set with each of the husbands’ placemats, their labeled coffee mugs—and I shut my mind, made myself someone else: a scientist in the Amazon, a tourist in a foreign land, a spy fleeing her own life.
Mr. Holm drove fast. We took his Cadillac and drove with the top down, the breeze whipping our hair. We said little as the sun rose and the highway filled with other cars. We’re like those two bank robbers, I couldn’t help thinking. What were their names? Mark would have known. He had had a memory for names. I wondered if he still did. I wondered if he’d turned out like the man I’d believed he would become: soft-spoken, hard-working, good.
I might have given in to a wave of sorrow, right them, but Mr. Holm gripped my hand. “We need to get you a dress,” he said. With the sun glancing off his sunglasses, he looked like every handsome man in every commercial, his face a fantasy born of composite dreams.
“A dress?” I said. Mr. Holm’s ferret, Ruffles, was in my arms, and she nibbled lightly on my wrist, as if chiding me for my hesitation. I had assumed we would get married as we were—me in slacks and a blouse, him in his suit—but the idea of getting a dress, the frivolous intensity of his plan, delighted me.
“It would be hard for you to look any more lovely, my darling,” he said. “But I want to try.”
The truth is, most women, at least secretly, believe they are beautiful. They just want their suspicions confirmed. I was no exception. A surge of glee rushed to fill my limbs, like the carbonation in soda pop. Yes, I thought. I deserve this. This is my reward.
The dress was a creamy ivory color, silky, with lace and frills and pearls and tulle. A young woman’s dress. But Mr. Holm insisted—not in a controlling or domineering manner—he insisted in a way that was honest about our ages, and therefore romantic. “Let’s pretend we’re young again,” he said. “Let’s start from the beginning.” So I let my shoulders peek out, let my cleavage billow from the bodice like loaves of rising bread. The sales ladies admired me. They, too, were charmed by Mr. Holm. His polite, inquisitive chatter. The way he addressed them using their first names.
“Remember, no returns,” one sales lady said to me, cheerfully.
Mr. Holm made sure I got gloves, too. And shoes to match. A small tiara.
“Gorgeous,” he said. “Just stunning. Keep the dress on. We’ll go directly to the chapel. I cannot wait a minute longer.”
So I shuffled up to the register. The sales lady beamed at me. Mr. Holm hunted in his pocket for his wallet.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. He ran a hand through his perfect, silvery hair. “I must have left my wallet at your house.”
The sales ladies clucked their tongues sweetly. Their eyes turned to me.
“No worries, love,” I said, producing my purse. “I’ve got it.”
He kissed me, deeply and with tongue, as I handed the money over. The sales ladies oohed and clapped.
We had driven all day. Barely stopping. Me in the dress, him clad in a new tuxedo. Las Vegas was close: 15 miles, read a sign. I was getting hungry. I decided to stay stoic. It was more romantic that way. To remain charmingly brave. Mr. Holm drove faster and faster. Like he was desperate to arrive. This made my eyes well up, since I knew Las Vegas wedding chapels were probably open all night.
In the distance, the desert sky turned hot orange, then lurid purple. Saguaro cacti stood silhouetted against the horizon like thick forks.
To distract myself from my hunger, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I decided to tell Mr. Holm about Mark.
“I almost got married once.”
“To my high school sweetheart.”
Mr. Holm said nothing, and I worried I had hurt him by bringing this other man into our relationship, still embryonic, fragile in its newness. “It was so long ago, though,” I said, trying to save face. “And really I suppose I never would have married him. We were too young—way too young. I was only eighteen! How could a person possibly commit at that age? How could a person begin to know who she’ll become?”
Mr. Holm made a small sound in his throat. I checked the speedometer: 90 mph.
I couldn’t stop talking. I had gone out on a limb and could only go farther. “Of course,” I said, “you think you’ll have this big expansive life, but that turns out to be a delusion. Your life is small and quiet and boring anyway. Or maybe because you feel so bad about giving up on someone, you make your life small and boring. You become piously philanthropic. You start to understand why people get married young: it’s because they are afraid to lose people. They understand they might not get a second—”
The car made an abrupt turn, and for a moment I thought we were pulling over. Instead, we pulled off the highway into a residential section of Las Vegas. One-story homes with beige walls and curtained windows and scrubby little yards, cloned again and again. Cul-de-sacs looped through neighborhoods like tangled yarn. It was not the Las Vegas I’d expected—with lights and colors and feathers and hundred-dollar bills blowing in the air—but I trusted Mr. Holm. He seemed to know his way around.
He parked the Cadillac outside one of the beige houses.
“Just a minute,” he said politely, like a newsboy tipping his cap. Like a stranger. He got out and went to the door. I’ve pushed him away, I thought. This is my doing. All that talk about the past when it’s the present that matters. Ruffles the ferret wriggled in my arms. She also seemed agitated.
Mr. Holm entered the house without knocking. Must be a close friend, I thought. Maybe he’s getting us a witness. I petted Ruffles. Minutes trickled by. The sun darkened. My mind went blank. My stomach no longer felt empty so much as filled with Styrofoam. I pushed away images of the foster husbands struggling to make dinner. They were grown men, I told myself. This was the twenty-first century.
I heard shouting coming from the house. First Mr. Holm’s voice, elegant even at high volume. Then a shriek. A woman.
She emerged in the doorway, dressed in a slinky, sequin gown, skin-tight, like scales. She had curlers in her hair, a cigarette in her mouth, another in her hand, a third behind an ear. One eye was garishly made up—a green tiki sunset—so that it seemed part of a separate creature. She was barefoot. With her one green eye she squinted at me, still waiting in the car. Mr. Holm came out behind her. His face was taut. The woman stepped closer, still squinting. Then she laughed.
Mr. Holm, looking flustered—an expression I hadn’t yet seen on him—said something I could not hear. She laughed harder, slapping her firm, sequined thighs, her hair curlers bouncing. “So go ahead and marry her, for fuck’s sake, what do I care?”
Hearing the woman’s voice, Ruffles popped out of my lap and climbed onto the dashboard. The woman darkened.
“Is that my ferret? What in bloody hell—?”
Mr. Holm grabbed at the woman’s arms. He whispered to her, trying to tell her something—perhaps declaring his undying affections, saying I was a ruse, a mark, a fool—and as he did, he looked older, smaller. Not so handsome. More like a salesman: all flattery and distraction. The woman wrestled free and started toward me, a hurricane swirling in her eyes. I watched her approach—this furious, magnificent woman—then fear kicked in. I threw my legs over the stick shift and plopped into the driver’s seat, the wedding dress tulle cushioning my landing. The keys were in the ignition. I peeled out of the driveway in a screech of diesel and rubber. Ruffles squeaked like a chew toy.
It was easy to get to the strip. All roads in Las Vegas led there, so I followed these tributaries to the thick river of traffic slugging through a forest of lights and high-rise hotels. I cruised slowly, letting the desert breeze skim my cheeks. I felt numb, more than disappointed. Marquees glittered and blinked. Along the sidewalks, bands of bachelorette celebrants stumbled into bachelors. Businessmen ogled women in impossible heels. A child crouched beside a trash can, hiding from his parents.
My numbness gave way to tingling. I drove slower and began to study faces. I started seeing Elvises, everywhere. Cow licks and sideburns. Some fat. Some thin. All in their white tuxes. All these resurrected gods—come back from the past—all these men reinhabiting lost possibilities. A sharp pain twisted inside me, but it was a pain I’d long needed to feel. I continued cruising until I found what I wanted. Then I pulled the car up next to him. My hair was wild. My dress twisted and bunched above my knees. Ruffles scurried around my neck like a live scarf.
“Hey, baby,” I said. “Wanna go for a ride?”