“Well—I mean, your friends. What do they say when someone is under the weather?”
“Oh,” said Gloria. “Well, I don’t think you’d like what they say.”
“Really? Why? Is it risque?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Tell me. What is it? I won’t be shocked.”
“Well,” said Gloria. “Most of my friends, my men friends, they say ‘I was stewed to the balls last night.’ My girl friends—“
“Really. I took you for a lady but I see I was wrong. Excuse me,” said the woman and stood up and left the room.
–John O’Hara, BUtterfield 8
Something happened before I left town. I was going to tell you about it when I returned, but here I was lying in bed at 5 a.m. just thinking about it, turning all the pieces over in my head. Franny came back on Monday and told me she was gaining another sibling at her father’s house. I cannot adequately describe to you the simultaneous feeling of petty elation and schadenlulz combined with a sinking feeling regarding Franny’s chances over there. Imagine: you are having an orgasm and someone explodes in and tells you your favorite pet of all time has just died. Maybe I need to dial down the hyperbole a little, though, because mostly I was enjoying the news very much, and Franny has spent most of her time at my house for a long time now. So fast on the heels of his third child, and apparently it was a surprise. SeaFed will have at least four children. I did not see this future for him when I was five months pregnant in 2000, his wife, and he was on a table getting his tubes snipped.
It all made me think of YEARS ago, when the whole crack up happened. I don’t talk about this very much, and I don’t think I’ve ever written about it. Really, there’s too much in this world to spend all your time obsessing about the small shit. As an aside, sometimes I wonder if I look like a person obsessed with…all the things I write about here, how I keep dipping into the same deep grooves over and over. I think I am sorting shit out, like most of us do. You will have to take my extremely unreliable word as a narrator that having a conversation with me involves more than three topics.
When you are in a long term relationship sometimes you hit those moments where you reach your hand out and say “I’m sorry, something is changing. Will you take my hand and leap over this canyon with me?” Sometimes the other person balks. How they balk is almost as important as if they had said “Yes, I will jump with you,” but you don’t always realize that at the time. All you want to hear is “YES, I will jump.” The balk, though. Sometimes it’s a gentle balk of “I need more time,” and it’s real and not stalling. Sometimes they say “I will watch you” and you jump and turn around and they are right beside you, having taken a donkey down and up the canyon while you did all the heavy lifting yourself. How clever!
Sometimes there is a balk and it is the Balk of Finality. You turn around and the gap was bigger than you thought, and they look kind of small and sad and alone on the old lame ledge, and their clothes look slightly out of fashion. You miss them and feel unburdened at the same time. Well, this is unfortunate. Now what?
A million years ago when I was still married, I found myself attracted to someone else. It happens! Does it ever. I’m not going to try to plead my case here. I think what happens after the realization is more important than the alleged crime of it happening at all. I approached SeaFed and told him how I felt, and wondered what I should do. Before Franny our marriage looked like the outline of a typical dull marriage: petty battles, small grudges, the occasional mutual victory, the occasional serious blowout. After her it was really going off the rails because I figured out very quickly that I would be happier as an actual single parent than as a person who acted as a single parent, but had this secret obstacle that I had to work around, who would pass out drunk instead of putting his toddler to bed or would corner my friends at the parties I threw to tell them that he delighted in cornering my friends and making them uncomfortable.
Anyway, what ensued after me realizing I was attracted to someone else is that I told him, and armed with nothing more than “and you’ve been disinterested in sex for months now, so I was wondering if you would consider…”
“No,” he said, toweling off after a shower. I think at that point he had been shooting me down for so long his damp nude body just looked like another object in the house, since it was not something I was allowed to touch, nor was there any point in bothering to have carnal thoughts in the direction of it. He laughed a little, as if I had suggested we blow off school and work and take the rest of our grocery money for the month and go parasailing all day. How ludicrous!
Oh if only, I thought. As if this person you have known for years could surprise you and suddenly grow a new head, which would issue up out of their back and replace the old one, and it would be a sensible head that would say things like, “Of course, I have been inconsiderately withholding sex from you for months, so it’s natural that you would want to have sex with someone. Go ahead, if you exploded we’d never get all your guts and brains out of the parquet flooring.” How luxurious it would be to hear the words “I understand,” or “This must be difficult for you,” without having them come from your own mouth.
There followed a period of silences and loneliness and heartbreak, which was hardly about the other person I was attracted to and killed contact with, but more about the feeling of being next to someone who is supposed to be the person who knows you the best (this was my view of marriage at 23) and in reality you are completely alone.
Things happened after this time, the next year. I was busy with grad school and Franny and making new friends and adjusting to my life as a person who was apparently supposed to be completely neutered at 25. Sex, like breathing, is something we take for granted until the second we don’t have it anymore. A hand was around my throat, hard.
The things that happened around the spaces where I was busy were confounding, and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. The summer before I left I found a pair of women’s sunglasses in my Jetta. This was puzzling. There had been no talk of SeaFed going out with anyone, or him having any plans at all beyond “I’m going out to practice” his saxophone with someone else.
October, there I was on the verge of moving out. All the pieces were sliding into place for me. I had been pricing rentals since summer, choosing my new neighborhood. I had taken a thousand leaps over canyons at this point and I didn’t even think of him much. We were coexisting, he was the upright piano gathering dust in the corner, and I was the broken lamp with the pretty shade that you try to remember to fix the next morning after company is gone and there are dirty glasses all over the living room. We were at a party on a houseboat for one of his friends from one of his attempts at college, a couple of weeks before my birthday. I was cornered out on the deck by one of SeaFed’s high school friends who had attempted to hang himself a couple of years before. The attempt had slashed his vocal chords and he was not able to speak much above a harsh whisper, a difficult obstacle to conversation at a party. I spent most of the night leaned in close to him on the relatively quiet deck. He was an interesting fellow. I could see through the window that SeaFed had spent most of his night talking to one person as well, a small mousy girl wearing glasses.
“Well, what a coincidence,” SeaFed loudly and deliberately said, as we walked off the docks and to our car.
“What’s that,” I said.
“Did you see that woman I was talking to?” he asked.
“I went to middle school with her. I have not seen her IN YEARS.”
“Ah,” I said. It all seemed kind of overly-elaborated at the time, and some small chime went off in my brain then, but I let it go. It got filed away with the mystery sunglasses to be considered later, much later. A week after I moved out we had dealings at the bank and he turned up with what was possibly the largest hickey I have ever seen on his neck, administered by the mousy girl at the party, who was probably so thrilled to be able to finally publicly claim him.
Months later, on a day I did not have Franny, I got a call from Franny’s school. “Where is Franny, is she unwell?” I was worried about her, and irritated that her father had not called me or called the school to report her absence, something I assumed was common sense. I called his phone, no answer. I decided to go to his house in Crown Hill, our old house, and knock on the door. His wife, who was not his wife yet, but still the mousy girl who my friends said looked like a smaller, plainer, and less stylish version of me, answered the door. She was taking one of her sick days to care for my daughter. Franny capered in the background in her Hello Kitty panties, BOING BOING BOING with a woman who was not me, who was enough of a sucker to stay home with his kid. She wanted him badly, I could see that then.
I had this unsettling feeling like I had moved out, and nothing had changed. Someone had immediately slotted into my place to take care of my child and clean up any messes. Did I want my position back? Was I jealous? No, it wasn’t like that. I think I was egotistical enough to want to be missed, but it was clear I was not going to get that. Overall I was immediately happier, was relieved, and was sleeping better.
But here was my doppelganger, the one who would put up with all the tedious bullshit I had outgrown after seven years. She wanted more than Franny, she wanted her own babies, and she got them, and a house (her mother’s house, who is now sleeping in a mother-in-law SeaFed fashioned out of a garage). And a husband.
Franny stayed over there recently on the last weekend of the month and she told me that she was hungry, and how little food there was in the cupboards at the end of the month, and I told her she should walk to the store and buy herself some food if that happens again. I felt such relief that she has a pragmatic survivor for a mother who can tell her how to do things without subjecting her to them and making her figure it all out on her own. Still, I was angry. I would prefer that she have enough to eat. Franny reports whinging about not enough money. She did some work for him last weekend to earn money and her father agreed to pay her, but he opened his wallet and basically moths flew out.
“Are they happy about the new baby?” I asked.
“No one seems happy over there,” Franny said.
In the wake of the announcement of the fourth child coming, Franny inquired about the previous promise of her getting her own room there now that she is becoming a preteen and her stepmother snorted and said “That’s probably not going to happen now” and was told that having her visit was going to be a pain now. Franny told me this factually and unflinchingly, because like I was as a child, she is very accepting of every ounce of bullshit adults can lay on her. Reader, I tell you this kind of nonsense is one of the only types that can invoke my vestigial necksnap. “THAT IS NOT OKAY!” I said.
I think about That Poor Woman over there, and yes this is preposterous, but I feel there was a break in the timeline and she is living my life. How grateful I am now that there was a stand in, someone to pass the ferryman’s paddle to, though none of us knew it was happening at the time.
Here is your writer, sitting in tropical climes with sunrises and obnoxious tropical birds happening, feeling like Hemingway except with less glamorous hangovers, a blotchy sunburn, and scoring with 100x fewer bitches.