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Politics

Daughter, First: A Good Wife’s Burden

Rosemary Mahoney was the perfect political spouse, until her husband did something so awful she couldn’t turn away.

Fiction Daughter First A Good Wifes Burden
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Meet the Governor's daughter in part 1, and the attorney who's going to take down the administration in part 2.

Rosemary had packed and unpacked her suitcase three times. Now it lay full, near to bursting, on the bed. All her winter clothes were inside, plus the contents of the bathroom cabinet, and an envelope containing enough cash to last a year.

The flight to Aspen would take off in four hours. She’d called a car service to take her to Logan, arranging to meet the driver in front of a laundromat on Joy Street.

Suddenly, the plan seemed absurd. Could she really leave her children to face this mess without her? Then she remembered: they were in her husband’s thrall, just like everyone else.

Rosemary lugged the suitcase downstairs, lingering in the doorways of each of the rooms she’d spent decades decorating. In the formal living room, the grand piano was crowded with photographs in silver frames. There were Katie and Tom on their wedding day, beaming on the church steps. Here were her four children on an Easter Sunday when they were small. Her eyes landed on a photo of Jim, arms raised in victory on the night he was elected mayor.

She considered leaving him a note. Three months ago, he’d booked the biggest of the Copley Plaza ballrooms for their 45th anniversary. In front of 300 people, he’d given a speech about her loyalty, how she’d stayed by his side, even when he’d acted like a fool. He could have said anything, and he chose that.

His affairs were mortifying, his sloppiness enraging. She’d never forget the photo on the front page of the Herald — of Jim and that model locked in an embrace on the deck of his precious schooner. The headline screamed MAHONEY’S LOVE BOAT. A swarm followed, reporters stooping so low as to involve her children. It turned out that Jim had the model on the payroll, listed as a senior economic consultant.

Not long after Jim resigned, George, his beloved father, died of a heart attack. This sent Jim into a depression: six months of padding around in his boxer shorts, adding whiskey to his coffee. Then one day, he emerged newly energized, determined to make his father’s company a success at any cost. For two decades, that occupied his time. That, and chasing girls half his age.

Beyond the embarrassment, Rosemary didn’t care about the affairs, which at least gave her many pleasant evenings alone. Sometimes she spent two hours in front of the bathroom mirror, applying face masks and eye creams, the efficacy of which she could never be certain, but that La Mer serum cost over $300, so she reasoned that it must be doing something. The freedom also gave her time to have dinner with her oldest friend, Virginia, the one person who knew Rosemary’s deepest fantasy: to escape to an abbey full of nuns, to wear a long black habit and never again feel a hand snake into her underpants while she was trying to sleep.

She hadn’t always been like this. When she met her husband, she was intoxicated by the abundance of him — not just his size, but his confidence. He walked into any room certain that everyone in it was now better off being in his presence. From the start, she noticed how he lied, but she somehow overlooked it. Their differences thrilled her.

But six years into their marriage, she picked up the phone in the kitchen and heard Jim say, “Sherry, you know I’ve always loved you.”

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“Bullshit,” said a woman’s voice. “You wouldn’t do this to someone you loved. Our daughter worships you, even though you won’t have anything to do with her. She worships the idea of you.”

Rosemary’s heart raced. She thought she must have misheard, but when she confronted Jim, he admitted everything. He’d been married before; this woman had had his baby, a girl named Stephanie. Sherry had run into trouble with drugs, and George had convinced him that he’d never amount to anything with a wife like that. So Jim had left her and agreed to support the child as long as she remained a secret.

When Rosemary said, “But you still love her,” he didn’t deny it.

It was as easy as that. As quickly as she had fallen in love, she fell out. After that, Jim handed Rosemary an envelope on the first of every month and asked her to pop it in the mailbox on her way to aerobics class. It contained a check for Sherry.

***

When Rosemary was a child, her mother had worked as a maid for an heiress in Chestnut Hill. Her mother told her how the heiress had fired two other maids for coming in late. She sent the girls away, then said to the remaining staff, “If you can’t keep help, you can’t run a home. I’m sure the rest of you will redouble your efforts.”

Rosemary was terrified of what people might say about her family, her own wild brothers. So she pretended to be someone else — her mother’s old boss.

Jim’s family was lace-curtain Irish, from the fancy end of Dorchester, but he loved telling people how Rosemary’s mother spoke only Irish until her death. He won over Mexican voters by repeating this story, by reminding them that he was like them, even though of course he wasn’t. Maybe this had been part of the calculus of choosing her. He could always say, “My wife grew up in a three-decker in Southie with ten cousins on every floor.” Authenticity by association.

Now, Rosemary watched with a mix of pride and regret how easy it was for her children to fit in on private jets to St. John, at fundraisers full of celebrities. They were so privileged. Too privileged. Jim bought Mary a house because she was sad about being single. He bought Katie a store.

But Rosemary never stopped thinking about the first daughter, the one they pretended didn’t exist. She worships you. She worships the idea of you.

Her phone buzzed: Your driver will be on location in ten minutes.

It had only been six weeks since she ran into Rita O’Shea, a friend from the old neighborhood, at the Stop & Shop deli counter.

“You’re still in Southie?” Rosemary asked. “So lucky to have the Seaport right in your backyard! All the fabulous restaurants — and that walking path. My cousin just sold his house for two million dollars, can you believe it?”

Rita narrowed her eyes. “My family always rented. From George and Jim. Well, we did until your husband made the rents impossible. He couldn’t wait to get us out and the yuppies in. Land of luxury condos, that’s what Southie is now.”

Rosemary frowned. “No. Jim wouldn’t do that.”

“Please. That’s the least of what he’s done.”

“Rita —”

“Your husband never made an honest dollar in his life. As if you didn’t know.”

Rosemary left her cart full of groceries and ran out of the store.

Had she been kidding herself, ignoring the signs? Campaign funds had paid for Jim Junior’s wedding on Nantucket. Jim had been caught for that — said it was just a mix-up. He reimbursed the campaign, but Jim Junior was embarrassed to be dragged into it.

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When Big Jim came home that night, she was waiting at the kitchen table. He smelled like beer and perfume. She told him what she had heard — what she’d found when she looked through the contracts in his office. Had he forgotten that she’d dropped out of BU law school to marry him?

“You’ll be caught,” she said. “You need to fix this. You need to resign.”

“Rosie,” he said. “Why don’t you stick to your specialties, and I’ll stick to mine.”

“And what are my specialties?” she said.

He waved his arms at the rooms around them. “This,” he said. “The home fires. Lunching with your girlfriends.”

Rosemary felt a fire growing in her.

“You can’t bring him back from the dead, you know,” she said quietly.

“Excuse me?”

“Your father. No matter how you try to impress him, he doesn’t know. In his eyes, you’ll always be the disappointment who couldn’t hold on to the mayor’s office.”

Long-married people have perhaps the greatest capacity of anyone to injure one another. So much knowledge at hand. Rosemary had never made use of it before. It felt good.

He didn’t come to bed that night.

She lay awake, thinking of Katie.

Katie loved and feared her father in equal measure, always had. She had always been his favorite. How could he drag her into this?

If Rosemary had found it odd when Jim made Katie and Tom his advisers, the thought hadn’t lingered. “Katie’s our little shark,” he had said. “She’ll do what it takes.”

Rosemary rolled this around in her head after their fight. As soon as the sun was up, she went to Katie’s house. Her daughter was in the kitchen in yoga pants, making coffee as the maid served breakfast. Manuela set a plate in front of Katie, which had an oven-toasted piece of French bread covered in a creamy avocado spread, with a perfectly poached egg on top of it.

“I need to talk to you,” Rosemary said.

Katie seemed annoyed. Maybe she was hungry, but she didn’t start eating. “You could have called. I would have told you that I have a conference call with the offices of fifteen governors across the country.”

Rosemary grabbed her daughter by the sleeve, like she had done when Katie was a child.

“Come,” she said, leading her into the den and closing the door.

“Your father is up to no good,” she whispered. “I looked through some papers in his office, listened to tapes, and —”

“I’m sorry, you did what?”

“He’s taking kickbacks and bribes. Oh, Katie, it’s bad.”

She couldn’t decipher the look on her daughter’s face. Did it mean she already knew?

“Mom, business stuff probably seems shady to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at.”

Rosemary tried to ignore the condescension. She took a deep breath. “I’m worried that he hired you and Tom because —”

Katie interrupted, seeming angry now. “The only reason Daddy asked me to help with his campaign is because I’m a shrewd businesswoman. He saw how well I did with my store. And the reason Daddy hired Tom is because he’s the smartest man in every room. Now, I’ve got work to do. Maybe you should go get a facial or something.”

Rosemary couldn’t remember feeling so enraged in all her life. Her husband was a liar, and their daughter thought she was a twit to be brushed off.

She heard Rita’s parting words in her ears: As if you didn’t know.

Where did her own guilt lie? With Stephanie, of course. The daughter Jim had willed into nonexistence. She and her mother had always been a threat. Rosemary had helped him squelch it. The story almost came out three weeks before the governor’s election. A reporter at the Globe had gotten an anonymous tip, asked Jim and Rosemary to comment. Rosemary flew into a panic, and Jim said not to worry, he would just pay the guy off.

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“Will that work?” she asked.

“Everyone has their price,” he said.

She felt pure relief in that moment. But it wasn’t for him that she went along with it, nor for his career or his money. She did it because she knew the revelation would destroy her children. She had always carried guilt about this. She hadn’t heard a thing about Stephanie since she was a little girl. Who knew if she still had that same romanticized vision of her father? Rosemary saw how to show her she’d been lucky not to know him.

She left her daughter’s house, went home and made copies of everything. Then she put it all in a box and mailed it to Stephanie.

In the days that followed, while she waited to see what Stephanie would do, she went to Aspen alone. She checked out a rental apartment, a dim one-bedroom twenty miles from downtown. The realtor seemed to recognize her, or at least her type. “It’s for my maid,” Rosemary said. “I’ll take it.”

After that, there was nothing to do but wait. She heard the news about Tom on the radio, along with everyone else. Neither her husband nor her daughter had called to tell her. So Rosemary booked the flight, began to move forward with her plan. In the end, none of them would miss her. She refused to be taken down with them. She’d done nothing wrong.

She went toward the front door now, pulling the suitcase behind her.

To her surprise, the door opened. She shoved the suitcase in the closet.

“Mom? Where are you going?”

Katie.

“Nowhere,” Rosemary said. Her heart raced. Orla came to her, put her arms around her leg.

“But you’re wearing your coat.”

She glanced down. “Oh! Yes! I’m heading out for a walk on the Common.”

“Is Daddy here? I need to talk to him.” She spoke in her business voice, as if Rosemary were her assistant.

“He should be back soon.”

Tears came into Katie’s eyes. “You heard?” she said. Rosemary nodded.

“Oh, Mama,” Katie said, coming to her, falling into Rosemary’s arms.

Rosemary smoothed her hair, like she had done when Katie was a little girl.

“Shh,” she said. “It will be all right.”

Many things had shocked her in her life, but none more than this. To still be needed. It was a wonder, the greatest gift.

“Would anyone like some cookies?” she said.

“Me!” Orla said.

“Me,” Katie said with a laugh, drying her tears.

“Come on, let’s go get them in the pantry.”

“I thought you were going for a walk,” Katie said.

“I changed my mind.”

The story continues: read part 4.

J. Courtney Sullivan’s fourth novel, Saints for All Occasions, will be published in paperback in May.

Special thanks to the Instagram users who suggested Rosemary would use La Mer: @justinenewcomb, @geometricsleep, @darian, @megoiler, @perpixeled, @katewinick, @sbuncey, @heymaryc, @stephieejae, @happyvaness, @e_carmi, @heavenlyhyder, @deemont, @alanaweinshel, @charkattack25, @marissaconqueso, @hailermailer, @mesmerizeme, @katangelove, @meena, @charikleiav, @sechave92, @tracithart, @razmcg, @dimitra_tzitziou, @jessbcuzzz, @lauren_natash, @ninafirefly, @viperbrick, @franmanfriday, @paigebrigham, @imashar, @pancakesmama, @pink.espresso, @hou_joo, @liebelinds, @nicolevictoria25, @isabelle_215, @sarahjeanloui; and to Instagram user @ariacara for imagining Katie’s breakfast.