Arnold Schwarzenegger: I Want Maria Back

Fans at an Oct. 1 Manhattan book signing hoping to see a larger-than-life Arnold Schwarzenegger should not have been disappointed: There were two. Next to a giant cut-out of the star as Mr. Universe was the man himself, in cowboy boots and a massive silver skull ring on his right hand. He greeted dozens of male fans with compliments like “Nice sixpack!” It took one of the few women in attendance to reveal a less pumped side of the action hero turned governor by asking, “Are you getting back with Maria?” Schwarzenegger replied, “Sure.” Then, after a quiet pause he added, “I am working on it.”

Not everyone would regard his 646-page autobiography, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, which dredges up the betrayals that were the undoing of his marriage last year, as the most effective way to win Maria Shriver’s forgiveness and love. (For one thing he didn’t even show her the book until just before its publication.) But looked at another way, the memoir contains an awkward, if belated, love letter to his estranged wife. Over several chapters (one titled “Dream Girl”) he praises her looks, ambition, humor, parenting and what attracted him from their 1977 meeting at a Robert F. Kennedy celebrity tennis tournament. “I could go on for hours about what draws me to Maria,” he writes, “but still never explain the magic.”

“He wants to reconcile with her,” a source close to the actor tells PEOPLE. “He works every day at rebuilding those relationships with Maria and the children. He spends a lot of time with Maria, and they talk.”

But other friends of the former couple say this time Schwarzenegger’s outsize confidence, which had landed him at the top of his game-whether bodybuilding, moviemaking or politics-may fail him. Shriver is not happy about the book, which addresses his affair with housekeeper Mildred Baena that resulted in a son, Joseph, whose paternity was kept from her until last year. He reveals that Shriver confronted him in marriage counseling the day after he left office. “Because she is stoic, because she is Maria, she’ll do what feels like the right thing,” says a source who knows her. “But is she truly supportive that he’s airing every piece of dirty laundry of their lives? Totally not.”

A year and a half after what this source describes as the “darkest days” for Shriver (who had no comment for this story), she has found a way to be happy without him and, if anything, the book has underscored her determination to see the divorce through. When she learned of the affair, says the same source, “she made the decision to hold her head up high and find her own way. I think she loves him still and accepts him for who he is, but does not have to accept him as her partner anymore. She is doing fine.” Until this recent media blitz, that is. “The family settled into their version of the new normal, and now everything rears its ugly head again. And it’s Arnold who put it back out there! As much as I know he loves Maria and loves his kids, he is on Team Arnold first.”

Also on Team Arnold’s agenda: rebuilding an action-hero career at age 65 (he’s planning another Expendables sequel with pal Sylvester Stallone) and, through a new think tank at the University of Southern California, carving out a political legacy as elder statesman on issues like the environment and health care reform.

As for Shriver, she is now weighing her professional options, having cut back on her career as a journalist when Schwarzenegger ran for office. She threw herself into his campaign, as she had for her Kennedy relatives, and she defended Schwarzenegger against allegations of groping women on film sets. As the book asserts and a source confirms, “Maria was not aware of any infidelities in the marriage during Arnold’s campaign for governor.” At that point, Schwarzenegger writes that while he of course knew he was keeping his infidelity a secret, he still believed Mildred’s husband was Joseph’s father.

In the months since he confessed the truth to his other four children-Katherine, 22; Christina, 21; Patrick, 19; and Christopher, 15-he has been working on his relationship with them. “Arnold’s always been very close to the kids, but he spent more time with them,” says Franco Columbu, who was best man at his 1986 wedding.

Shriver and Schwarzenegger often come together for family occasions like their kids’ graduations. But it is unclear even to close friends how much Schwarzenegger sees their half brother Joseph, who lives with his mother in Bakersfield, Calif. “He is a good father,” Mildred Baena told People recently. Asked about his involvement, Schwarzenegger told CBS’s Lesley Stahl only that “I take care of him…. I fulfill my responsibility.” But in a rare flash of introspection, Schwarzenegger admitted on CBS that his marriage and family were dearest to him. “So the thing that really meant the most to me kind of fell apart because of my doing,” he said. “That is something that I will always look back and say, ‘Arrrrrgh. How could you have done that?'” With the divorce still not finalized-and neither party dating other people-perhaps there is a chance, however slim, for the reconciliation he clearly wants. Says a source close to him: “His ultimate ambition is to reconnect with his family.”

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