On an obscenely gorgeous and sunny day, I sit in my living room, splayed on the couch. Sun bathes me, and I bask in it. Today is a lazy, relaxing, waiting, anticipating day. I wait for something whose value can't be described. Someone.
Today my husband is due home. It's so funny: for twenty-five years Michael and I have been married, far longer than most couples last, and yet it's still so funny, calling him husband. I have a husband. I have a man who is just mine. It boggles the mind, makes my heart flutter, still, after so damn long. And after so damn long, he is coming home. It has been one hundred thirty-six days since I was last with my husband, and I am drunk with the anticipation of seeing him again.
When I hear his wheels crunching on the driveway, I will jump to my feet and run to the door, eager and smiling ear to ear. When I see his face again, with lines under the eyes and tiredness all over, I will kiss his slack, exhausted mouth and wrap my arms around him. This has been our ritual for decades; I know exactly what the shape the day will form, when Michael gets home. The events of the day, and me, will form ourselves around him. We will mold ourselves to his mood. Will he be excited to be home; will he pull me straight into the bedroom, like sometimes? Or will he just want to be left alone? Whatever he wants, I'll oblige. I know when to shut up, and I know when to let loose. I love him. He works so hard for me. For us.
I wait on the couch. I am fifty-one years old; I had my birthday a few weeks ago. The couch is maybe half my age, and its leather is cracked and worn and loose with time. I am not. I have kept myself beautiful, because I don't want Michael to have to come home to an old bag. I'll never be an old bag. I dress fashionably. I put on skin creams. I don't go out in the sun. There are no roots in my dark hair. I am a very, very youthful fifty-one. The couch is not. But I am.
I hear something outside, and spring to my feet, smiling ear to ear, like I said I would. There's Michael.
I don't want to say I'm obsessed, but when you wait for someone for hundreds of days at a time… Well.
The door clicks open before I reach it, and in he comes, into our little dark foyer. He's a tall, thin shadow, putting his heavy suitcases on the floor and sighing with tiredness. It's a long flight from California to Wales—that's where his company sends him, for a portion of each year, to manage their only office there. It's lonely in Wales; he hates everyone in his office, thinks they're all pretentious cocks, or so he says. He hasn't made any friends there, not in twenty-one years of work. But he has me to come back to.
I wrap my arms around his neck, twine my fingers in his dark hair. I can't see his face well—the foyer is dark, with the closed door and no windows—but my mouth brushes his, and finds a smile. "Hey, gorgeous," he murmurs to me.
"I missed you," I tell him, and we begin the slow, musicless dance of two people who have found each other again after months of loss: back and forth, swaying slowly. His hands slowly go up and down my back, making a satisfying noise across the silken fabric of my shirt: swish-swish. This is what I love, more than anything: the delicious reunion. Remembering what his face feels like, mapping his body.
He mumbles against my neck, "I got a raise."
"Baby!" I draw back, grinning widely at him, though he probably can't see it very well. "Wow! How much?"
There's a little, slightly guilty laugh in his voice when he says the number, as though he can't quite believe it's real. "Fifteen percent."
My jaw drops. They've never given him a raise so big. We make good money, but not that good. Never.
My husband must see my shock. "I know, right?" he laughs. His hands are warm against my sides, brushing up against the undersides of my breasts. I flare to life at the feeling. No matter how long he's gone, I always want him more than ever before when he comes back.
He says, "I thought maybe we could celebrate. You could take yourself out to a nice fancy dinner."
I go cold. I draw back. "Take myself," I parrot.
"Yeah. I'm going back in two weeks. This is only a two-week furlough. Sorry, Nat."
Two weeks with him. Not enough. "Two weeks is enough time for you to take me out to dinner," I say, trying to hide my disappointment.
"I don't think I want to leave the house at all. I'm so overworked," he sighs.
I understand. He works such long hours over there, and he's lonely, and then he comes home for such short times, and then he's got to go back again. For the millionth time in our twenty-one years of these awful separations, I say to him (futilely), "Take me with you this time. Take me to Wales when you go back. I want to be with you."
He expels an annoyed breath—God, I've annoyed him already; stupid, stupid Natalie—and walks away, into the living room, where there's more light and I can see his face, with lips pressed together tight. "Natalie, we've discussed this a billion, billion times."
"Yes," I say meekly. "I'm sorry."
He rolls his eyes toward the ceiling; his changes in mood are so quick, and I can sense he's gone cold, only because I made the mistake of bringing up the subject again. "Don't be sorry, just…don't mention it again, alright? You know my opinion. Someday I'll be able to stay here at home permanently, or retire, but until then, we can't just uproot ourselves. We're Californians. We're not Welsh. We'll never be Welsh."
This has always been a major point of contention for him, for some reason. It's his catchphrase: We're not Welsh. As though 'Welsh' means 'serial axe murderers.' That's how he says it, at least.
"Someday," my husband repeats, throwing himself back on the couch, where I've already warmed the spot for him. "Someday things will change."
Someday. For twenty-one years he has been talking about someday. But I won't be annoyed; I won't let myself be the petty, nagging wife. Someday will come. Someday will be worth it.
I go to the couch, walking as slowly and sensuously as I can manage, to let him know that I have forgotten the subject and it won't be broached again. Lowering myself down beside him, I put a hand on his cheek. He's got stubble—oh, Lord, his stubble is almost all gray, and his black hair's turning silver. He didn't have a single gray hair one hundred and thirty-six days ago. His face, olive-toned and handsomely lined, with its sharp jaw and long nose—despite the constant distance between us during our marriage, I know it better than my own. I know his body better than my own as well—tall and thin and toned, always toned; he never lets himself get out of shape. This is my husband. I will not annoy him, I sharply remind myself. I will make him happy.
I wonder if he's still feeling cold, if my words have left him frozen. I kiss him on the lips, a soft meeting of mouth to mouth, to try and resuscitate him. For a moment, nothing; frigid; there might as well be a block of ice between us. Then—and I sense reluctance, but still, still—his hand comes up to fill the space between my shoulder and jaw, resting on my neck, there, the spot I like to be touched best. After these years, he still knows.
Michael is almost always reluctant to make love. In the early years, it wasn't so; he was game to do it anywhere. We've lived in this house our whole marriage, and thanks to those first few years, the honeymoon years, we have fucked in almost every corner of every room. Against the fridge (which has since been replaced twice, for unrelated reasons). On the counter. In the bathroom, in the tub and against the sink-counter. In the bedroom, of course, both in the bed and on the floor.
My favorite memory is in the first year of our marriage, when we watched a horror movie at one in the morning, and I jokingly told Michael I had developed a sudden terror of the basement. And he dragged me down the stairs, two giggling newlyweds, to show me there were no monsters. We ended up pressed against the boiler, still giggling, trying our best to be quiet, even though it was very hard.
And then it faded away, and I don't blame Michael for it. After his company started sending him to Wales for an average of eight-twelfths of the year, he started to become distant, tired all the time, almost never game for sex. Sometimes he would like to kiss, or cuddle, but sex was not his favorite pastime any longer, and I don't blame him. He's tired, he's overworked, he just wants to rest. I understand. I don't mind. We are not giggling newlyweds anymore: we are in our fifties, and we are mature. Maturity means compromising. Maturity means understanding.
For the decades we have been both together and apart, I have attempted to establish a life that would await my husband whenever he returned. Since childhood I have dreamed of being a mother. Since we married, I have been trying desperately to make that dream come true.
Every time Michael came home, we would make love at least once. Even if he wasn't in the mood, I would beg him, and he would eventually, grudgingly relent. In recent years it's been a little harder to coax him, but I've been more desperate in recent years, too. I am almost an old woman.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I still hold out a tiny bit of hope that perhaps, one day, I might get pregnant. Fifty-one isn't that old. Women have been knocked up at more unusual ages. Sometimes I cast myself in the role of the biblical Elizabeth, who got pregnant in her old age, and gave birth to John the Baptist, one of the holiest men around. If Elizabeth could do it, why not me? Maybe my son could be the holiest man of the twenty-first century.
But most of me is fully aware of the fact that I am barren. I always have been. I always will be.
That's not to say I've never been pregnant before. I have. Three times. When I was thirty-two was the first time. I didn't vomit or crave pickles or change moods on a dime: the only indication was the slow, easy swell of my belly. I was nearly three months pregnant before I even suspected the development of life within me. I had barely even had the time to take a test and confirm my suspicions before I felt something dripping down my leg—I was wearing my favorite flowing blue skirt; I remember that so clearly—and looked down and saw little rubies on the carpet beneath me, stains that I haven't fully been able to scrub away even by now, almost two decades later. My child would be off at college by now, learning and studying.
The process of losing a baby is always odd, and it was even odder the first time, when I had barely been able to process the fact that I was having a baby in the first place. I sat in the hospital room staring into space, not thinking of anything, as the doctor explained things to me in his white coat. I had had a thing called a partial molar pregnancy. That's when the baby doesn't quite develop and turns into a tumor-like thing, a cancerous lump that needs to be removed. My body had done the job of destroying the intruder by itself, before surgery was required. Now I only needed to wait a day or two for my heroic body to victoriously expel the invader it had conquered.
There is a way you feel when you have miscarried—or, at least, a way I have felt—and I can only describe it as sterile. Sharp. Medicated—medical. The deadness that comes after life has gone.
I still don't know exactly how I feel about that first time. Michael wasn't with me; he had left a few days before, and wouldn't return for a long while. I was alone, first in the hospital, and then back at home, where I walked slowly and painfully with cramps so all-consuming that I was sure I was dying. For a few months afterward, I was sure I hadn't expelled all of the baby—that some of it was still inside me, festering within, a dead clump of remains. That was how bad the pain was.
I didn't call Michael to tell him. I didn't want to further ruin his already-terrible time in Wales. What was the point, anyway—he wasn't going to come back early; he wasn't able. So I told my husband only when he came back, but gently and carefully, as so not to hurt or disappoint him. He was hurt and disappointed, but only because I had never called him. And some part of him seemed relieved.
I can understand why he was relieved. Imagine me, having a baby, with Michael gone and unable to come back, with his job the way it is, unable to return to me and his child, probably until he retires at sixty-five. How selfish was I, to try and have a baby? It would be torture for Michael, to see his baby every few months and then have to leave again. I was selfish and mean.
For four years after that, I stopped trying. I got on the pill; I resolved myself against the idea of having a baby; I told myself I'd adopt a dog. Then, after those four years, the motherly instinct bloomed in me again, in slow motion like a flower opening in the soft light of the morning. I wanted a baby; I wanted to care for something; I wanted not to be alone anymore. I wanted.
I got off the pill. At thirty-eight was my second pregnancy. It lasted the longest, around six months. Michael was able to come home in the fourth month and put his hand on the curve of my stomach and see that I was finally growing something within. He looked awe-struck and terrified at the same time, and I felt the baby flutter. My baby loved to flutter: he kicked and punched and danced almost constantly. It was his calling card. He was a boy. My son.
Michael returned to Wales in the nineteenth week of my pregnancy. In the twenty-first week, I was sitting on the couch reading a magazine at 2:44 in the afternoon. It was a Wednesday. I remember looking at the clock at that exact moment and realizing the baby had not moved in almost three hours. I knew it right away, even before I picked up the phone to call the hospital. There was no fear within me—or, at least, you couldn't call it fear. It was more like a calm, sick dread. The feeling of knowing exactly what has happened, and not being able to do anything about it at all. It was a mother's sixth sense. I knew.
In the hospital, the doctor—a new one this time, a woman—told me that one in six stillbirths are unexplained, and remain unexplained forever. This was one of those times. They couldn't tell me why my baby had suddenly given up and died. They could not induce labor—they tried for six solid hours to get me to give birth, but contractions would not come. It may have had something to do with me. I staunchly did not want to see a dead baby emerging from me—it was my strongest emotion about the whole thing. I didn't want to deliver a corpse. So instead they did a caesarean section, and I saw him emerge from me that way. I named him after his father. He was very small and very warm, despite being dead. I remember being surprised at how warm he was—warmed by the incubator that was my body, desperately trying to care for a cadaver. I had stupidly expected him to emerge cold.
This time I called Michael right away, remembering last time, how he had been disappointed that I hadn't told him immediately. He was awkward on the phone, voice hissing and buzzing with distance. He didn't know what to say. I understood, though. What do you say to that?
Two months later, I adopted that dog. His name was Rufus, and he was a small mutt—they said at the shelter he might have some percentage of Yorkie in him, but that was about all they could guess. He lived with me for eight years. I liked him—he was friendly and quiet and a comforting pressure on my lap—but I still felt an emptiness inside me. And I still tried and tried to get pregnant. It was a fever within me now, no stopping it. I wanted that baby.
I imagined blooming roses, kittens, pregnant women with bellies stretched tight; I imagined everything fertile, the greenest grass and the heat of the sun. I imagined life being slowly formed within me, the spark of fire that women have carried within for millions of years, that small, quiet gem that flutters to life. But nothing happened. My body was the Arctic, my womb the lifeless tundra. There was nothing.
At forty-six—an age where I had long since lost hope—I finally experienced it, the thing I had never experienced before: symptoms. Vomiting. Cravings. Moodiness. I came up laughing from the toilet after throwing up six consecutive times without a break, laughing and almost screaming in joy. A miracle—my miracle baby at forty-six. Surely a miracle could not be lost, I told myself.
I lost the baby after only two months. A regular plain old miscarriage, blood everywhere. They couldn't tell me the cause. And that was it. That was the last one.
Michael stays for two weeks, a disappointingly short time. As I expected, he doesn't take me out to dinner.
The day before he leaves for Wales, he is unusually excited. He rips around the house, cleaning things and polishing things and fixing a squeaky doorknob. He reminds me of Rufus, who died five years ago, only a little while after I lost the last pregnancy. My dog used to tear around the house the same way.
I sit in the living room with arms crossed, smiling, as Michael makes his way over here and begins to furiously polish the side of our wooden coffee table. "What's up with you?" I ask.
He shakes his head, smiling. "It's just a nice day, Nat. Do I need another excuse?"
It is a nice day, with blue skies and warm sun shining through our translucent curtains. But Michael doesn't like the sun. It gives him hives when he stays out too long.
Still, I accept his excuse and watch him lovingly. I love him, and I love everything he does, fiercely and unconditionally. If he's happy, I will be happy.
The next day our house is sparkling clean, and my husband leaves for the airport at six in the morning. I would gladly come with him and see him off, if he asked me to, but that's not our routine. He always leaves very early, and he never lets me come with him. I don't need to get up and dressed at such a ridiculous time in the morning just for him, he tells me. And if he doesn't want me to, I guess I won't.
I'm in my nice new bathrobe. My old one was getting ratty, and knowing that Michael was coming home soon, I threw it out and got a new, mint-green one. My husband doesn't need to see me in anything ratty.
Hazy blue light shines through our kitchen window. The day has the weird, dull-dim-quiet quality of very early times, and I feel hazy too. Michael has finished his coffee, packed his suitcases, and is heading out the door. I give him a lazy, slow kiss just before he leaves. "I love you," I whisper quietly. I don't want him to leave, as always. That's my lot in life: to watch my husband leave when I want him to stay.
He nods and smiles and returns the sentiment. Then he leaves and the door clicks shut behind him. From the living room window with the curtains pulled back, I wistfully watch him stuff his bags in the trunk of the taxi and get in the back, and the yellow cab pulls away. We're separated.
The next day, I visit my mother.
I don't like visiting my mother. The best descriptive word for her is preserved. At seventy-four, she looks like a woman half her age, with smooth skin stretched tight. Her hair is still the same bottled brown as fifty years ago—even I, her daughter, am unsure of its real shade. She always wears the most modern, young clothes she can get her hands on; you might find her dressed in track pants and a sweatshirt straight from Forever 21, or a skin-tight nude-colored dress that's decades too young and sexy for her. She's more youthful than I am, and I don't like it, and I don't like her. She's too blunt. She's too rude. And the way she talks about my husband—
"Hi, Mom," I greet her at the door of her small modern house, with its huge glass windows and stained-glass door and geometric shape.
She stares at me, unmoving. "Who are you? I don't recognize you. You couldn't possibly be my Natalie. Why, Natalie's dead—or, at least, she must be dead, given that I haven't seen her in six months. I didn't raise my Natalie to abandon her mother."
"Sorry, Mom," I say automatically. This old chestnut. We go through this every time I see her, regardless of whether the last time I visited was six months ago or six minutes ago.
She squints at me, pretend recognition dawning on her smooth face. "Maybe you are my Natalie. Come in, stranger. Don't stay out there in the cold."
We sit in her living room—minimalist, with a glass-and-steel coffee table and four thin metal chairs that are quite uncomfortable—and we uncomfortably chat.
The conversation, as always, turns to my husband.
"He's cheating on you." This is my mother's spiel, and this is why I don't like visiting her.
"Of course he is, Momma," I sigh, and take another sip of my cold cucumber-mint tea, which is very cloying and not refreshing at all.
"I am one hundred percent serious, Natalie. I never liked that man. I know there's something wrong about him. I know it. Disappearing on you for eight months of the year? Highly suspect." She raises her glass to her mouth and stares at me over it, her eyes unblinking. "He's gone now, you say? Perfect time to pack your things and get out. I've been saying it for years."
"He works, Mother," I sigh. "Have you ever heard of that? Work? Some people do it for a living, I hear."
This is sort of an inside joke—or an inside insult, I suppose—since Mom hasn't worked a day in her life. She inherited millions from her father, who died long before I was born, and who invented the zipper or Velcro or something equally lucrative—I've never been privy to the exact details. Mom proceeded to use her inheritance to support two consecutive deadbeat husbands, both of whom tossed her away like garbage when they'd had their fill of her. In that way, I suppose I can feel pity for her, and for her suspicions. She's more than earned the right to be suspicious—of her own men. But not of mine.
"I've heard of work," my mother snaps at me. "And work isn't what your husband is doing. He has you fooled and you're allowing it—you're weaker than a three-legged twenty-year-old cat." Her voice strains on these last words, as she has used all her breath to expel this long sentence. She sits back in her seat and eyes me, satisfied with her diatribe.
"Michael loves me and I love him." It's useless, though. Mother can never wrap her head around the fact that some people have good marriages, because—
My mother rolls her eyes to the heavens. "Love, love, love. Your father and I loved each other, and what came of that? Nothing at all. You need a stronger foundation than that."
"I came of it, Mom," I remind her.
"Exactly my point," says my mother. "An ungrateful little wretch who can't even be bothered to visit her poor mother. You're just like him, you know."
That, I resent. My father (husband number one) was a cold man, a calculating man; he was an engineer, a mathematics guy, and he loved the impartiality of numbers, and far preferred them above the irrationality of emotional human beings. That's one thing my mother and I have in common—he hurt the both of us.
"I'm nothing like him," I tell her, trying not to allow my hurt to seep into my voice. "I love and I'm loved."
"Oh, yes," scoffs my mother. "Yes."
I don't know what she means by that, and I can't be bothered to ask.
When Michael is gone, I resent the emptiness of my house, but I try to make it as nice and homely as I can. I decorate the windows with suns and moons, I hang wind chimes outside, I arrange mats and rugs, I rearrange couches in the family room, I put little bits and bobs everywhere, I sweep, I dust, I vacuum, I scrub, I walk here and there. A pretty home is no replacement for him, but it makes life without him easier.
But today, something mars my home. It is left on my porch by a FedEx van, who I see driving up and away from the living room window, where I am sitting and reading. I watch the van drive off with interest, then head to the door. No one ever sends me anything.
There it is, on my doorstep. The yellow package.
For reasons I don't know, the sight of the unassuming yellow package sends waves of warning through me. Alarm bells are going off in my chest. This package, my body tells me instinctively, will ruin my life.
I open it anyway.
Its contents spill onto the wooden coffee table. For a moment, I can't process what I'm seeing. Pictures, dozens of them, of a family in paradise. Glossy and pristine, they shine in the light overhead. The fan whirs and hums. I stare.
I can't make sense of it. That's my husband, there. That's him with some other woman. My mind, very slowly, realizes what has happened. It moves like a slow prickly wave through me. One cell at a time. First, my gut understands—I told you, it whispers, I told you all along—and then my mind, and then my heart comes to comprehension, and then my arms and legs are swept into realization. It is horrible.
My husband and this woman, this stranger, lie on the sand, baking in the hot sun, and kiss. They pose for the camera in front of a gazebo, making peace signs and laughing, eyes obscured by wide sunglasses. They sit on lounge chairs on a porch, her reading a book, him smiling at someone who can't be seen. The woman is pretty and blonde, thin and toned and tan, full of laughter and mischief. She's lovely and probably ten years my junior. Therefore, ten years Michael's junior. I imagine that if I cut her open—and believe me, I want to—waves of light would spill out.
And then there are the pictures of the children.
There's a boy, first: smiling in swim trunks, diving into a pool, on the beach with his parents. Yes, they're his parents: I have no doubt. In a close-up photo—so close that I can see the fine hairs on his face—the young boy has the brown eyes of his father, and the woman's aquiline nose. He's her son. And he's my husband's son. He's perhaps eight or nine. In one photo, he stands at the front of a school assembly, grinning widely as he's handed a diploma. Then, in the next, he proudly presents it. Best at Mathematics, Month of February.
He's good at mathematics. Distantly I think, So's his father.
My heart is in my throat, my mouth—I imagine I can taste its bitter saltiness, its spongy flesh. Perhaps if I clamp down hard enough with my teeth, this nightmare will end.
That's the baby I could never give him. There is the son who ought to have been mine.
But there's more hell to live through, yet. There is a girl. Her mother has blue eyes, and so does the girl. But she has my husband's brownish-reddish hair, and it's down to her waist. She's maybe sixteen. Sixteen years, I think with bile rising in my throat. I could almost throw up.
She surfs on the waves; she sits on the beach; she lies back on a couch, giving the camera a wary half-smile. She's thin and gangly, athletic to a fault, and always seems to be wearing shorts.
There's a younger child, I notice. A toddler who only appears in two or three photos. A younger boy, blonde unlike his siblings, maybe three years old. He's always smiling. In one, his father holds him aloft in a pool while he splashes and laughs; the reflection of his mother, the photographer, can barely be seen in the crystal-clear water. In another, he runs along the granite ground of a splash pad, slick and laughing, with his sister leaning over him to help balance him as he goes.
Three children. Two boys and a girl.
They should have been mine. They belong to me.
There is a part of me screaming and yelling, a part of me full of fire, a part that wants to tear every one of these pictures into pieces that can never be fit back together. That part of me is distant and I can barely hear it. My mind is buzzing and empty. I sit, silent, and stare at the pictures for a very long time. More than once I shuffle through them, looking again, tormenting myself, just to double and triple-confirm what I already know.
After a long while, I rise and robotically place the pictures back into their envelope. I drive like a zombie or an automaton, heading to my mother's house. I have no one else.
When she opens the door with a quizzical look on her preternaturally-smooth face, I hand her the envelope and then plunk myself down on her couch, not listening to her questions. Eventually she gives up talking to me. She pours the pictures out onto her coffee table and stares at them, and quickly realizes what has happened.
"I always knew it," she tells her stone-faced daughter. "You know that? I always knew it."
"You tried to tell me," I admit. My voice sounds monotonous, even to me.
"You'll leave him, of course," she tells me. A regular mother would ask: But what will you do? Not mine. She doesn't ask. She tells. She informs.
"I don't have anywhere to go," I remind her.
A regular mother would say: Come live with me. Mine doesn't. She says, "Figure it out. You need to be gone by the time he comes back. Get all your things out of his house and tape this envelope to the door, or leave it on his bed or something. So that he knows why you're gone." She taps her fingers hard on the table. "We want him to know."
For the first time, my voice breaks. "He won't miss me, Mom. It's not like I'll be taking his kids with me. He doesn't want me."
"Nonsense," she snaps. "You don't stay with someone for twenty-five years and not feel something. There's a reason he stayed with you, Natalie. Something of him is interested in you, in some way." She taps the table with a knuckle, emphasizing her words. "You leave, you'll hurt him. In the very least you'll disrupt his life, if only a little. That's a victory. You're a jilted woman. So jilt him back."
She sits back, looking triumphant, and crosses her arms. "Don't let him have the pleasure of knowing where you are or seeing your face. Let him run back to his woman in Wales, or wherever the hell he is. He'll not come back to my daughter, not ever again."
"He's not in Wales," I whisper, staring down at the photos spread across the table like evidence of a crime spree. "It's too sunny and hot in those photos. He's never been in Wales, I don't think. I don't know where he's been all this time."
"It doesn't matter where the hell he is. What matters is he's gone. He's out of your life. He's old news. Go find a better man and be happy. I want to see you be happy."
"Don't you get it?" I shake my head. Inside, I'm screaming at her in my frustration and fury, but my words come out as quiet as a lamb. "There is no other man. It's always been him."
"Nonsense. There's fish in the sea. Perhaps you can find someone who doesn't run off for eleven-twelfths of the year. A woman, even. I'd rather see you with a woman than with that cheating scum."
I am this close to reacting somehow—crying or screaming or throwing up—and it's only through a modicum of self-control that I do none of those. "No men. No women. Just him," I say quietly.
"Nonsense!" says my mother for a third time, but then she glares down at the photos again, lips pursed. "Look at that bitch he's with. Blonder than a poodle. And her mongrel children—ugly like dogs, all of them. They're a family of dogs, Natalie. Don't be jealous of them. Laugh at them!" She laughs herself, a short bark that reminds me of a dog far more than my husband's other family does.
It's the first time I've ever heard my mother swear, but I can't summon the same hatred. My hatred is not on the surface but deeper, a simmering swamp of imagined cruelties and revenges. It bubbles and froths and gives off foul odors, waiting for me to act.
My husband's other woman is not a dog. That woman is lovely, and her children are handsome. I can't deny it. They look like the happiest of families, like nothing could come between them.
I will tear them apart.
I don't know who sent me the envelope. There's no return address. I can rule my husband out—why would he want to destroy his perfect family?
Who else could there be? His wife, perhaps, or whatever she is to him—lover, or girlfriend, or partner. Perhaps she sent it. Maybe she found out that I exist, and wanted to warn me that she exists, too.
Whether or not she sent me the photos, I will operate on the assumption that she didn't. That she knows nothing about me.
And I will act.
My husband's paychecks are still entering our shared account. I don't know what job he's working—maybe he lied to me about that, too. All that matters to me is that there's still money coming in, and we've got a lot of savings. For this quarter of a century that I've waited on Michael, I've been diligent with money. I've been careful; I've shopped second-hand and saved almost everything. Now it's going to work to my advantage.
I transfer almost twenty thousand dollars into a new account, one that belongs solely to me. Enough to live on, for a little while, while I try and find myself a job. We've got almost a million dollars in savings. My husband makes a lot of money, and neither of us are big spenders.
It says a lot to me that I've never noticed any money disappearing from the account, even though it looks like he's had a wife and children to feed for at least sixteen years. Maybe his woman is the provider; maybe she's loaded to the teeth. I picture her, the blonde and toned beauty with her Gucci sunglasses and designer bikinis, as an old money heiress. It's not hard to imagine. In the pictures, they had a beautiful home with an enormous back deck, a pool, marble floors and granite countertops and high geometric windows, all cool luxury and excess. Yes, the woman is old money, and they live in paradise.
In any case, our money is still there—all nine hundred six thousand, four hundred and eighty-nine dollars of it—and the twenty thousand I steal for myself barely makes a dent. Michael won't notice. He has other things to worry about: his woman. His children. His life over there, wherever he is.
Michael isn't due home for another seventy-six days. I count them, making tally marks on a piece of paper I hide in my dresser, and they fly by like seconds. My dresser is now located in a small apartment, a one-bedroom home just large enough to be comfortable and cozy for a single fifty-one-year-old woman with no family and no prospects. I make it a real home: doilies on the furniture, flowers on the dining room table, a tiny herb and vegetable garden in the windowsill that I build a special shelf to help support. I put pictures on the wall of things I like: cats, families, hummingbirds. I make friends with my neighbors and invite them for tea. Eventually, I stop feeling generous. I take a hundred thousand more dollars from Michael's account and place it squarely in mine. I will live comfortably on his dime. I don't give a shit anymore.
I find work as a secretary for an eye doctor who works out of a grocery superstore. My office is tiny and cozy and hardly anyone ever calls; the doctor has few patients and rarely comes out of his own office to bother me. I spend my days listening to the radio and humming along and making my own money for the first time in twenty-five years. I spend my days slowly letting go of the dreams I've tightly clutched for so long, like a baby's comfort blanket. No, Michael is never coming home for good, and I will never be the mother of his children and live a happy life with him. I am done with that. I am entirely finished with fooling myself.
Our former house is half-empty. I have moved some of the furniture and all my things into my new apartment. Michael will come home to emptiness and silence, like my mother suggested he should. But her other suggestion, I will not take. Michael won't see the envelope taped to his door and understand what happened. No, I have other plans for the envelope.
Years ago, I learned not to call Michael at his work overseas. I learned that he doesn't like to be bothered when he's "working." Now, I realize that "working" is a euphemism for "banging his other wife." So, for the first time in years, I call Michael at his work number. Now is the time to start enacting my plan.
For a moment, silence reigns, and I hang in the balance, wondering if this number even works anymore. Then, it rings loudly in my ear, and the moment breaks.
The phone clicks. I hold my breath. Will his wife answer?
No, it's his hesitant, slightly-gruff voice, the voice I've loved for years. "Hello?"
I can barely stand making my voice light and airy and loving again, but I manage it. "Michael! Baby!"
"Oh, Natalie." How could I never have noticed the disappointed note in his tone every time he picks up the phone and realizes it's me? The way his face falls every time he opens the door and sees me waiting for him? Now, it's clear as a bell, and I'm disgusted by it. "What do you want?" he asks as though I am a burden, something to be dealt with and forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind. That's me.
In the background, do I hear kids laughing, or am I imagining it? Maybe I'm going mad. "Honey, something's come up," I tell him, trying to sound breathless. "The car—it's in your name, right?"
"Yeah…" He sounds like he wants to hang up. Joke's on you, bastard.
"Well, I have to sell it. It's gone haywire, honey. I was driving in the middle of the highway and it just stopped on me and gave up. That's happened more than once. The thing is insane. It's like it wants to kill me." I laugh a little.
"Uh, that stinks," he says, sounding uncomfortable. "What do you want me to do?"
"I really need a new car for groceries and stuff. Thing is, I can't sell the old car until you sign some papers. I'm going mad here—practically starving. I can't wait another forty days, hon. Can I just mail you the papers and you can sign them and send them right back? I'd need your address, though. I don't think I have it on hand." God, I sound so convincing, so real. I'm proud of myself.
I hear his breath crackling over the line. Hesitant and suspicious, he says, "It might take more than forty days for the papers to go back and forth, though."
"Nah, I don't think so. Let's just try it, anyway. I'll make copies in case they don't reach you in time."
More forcefully: "No, Natalie, I really don't think it's a good idea."
Am I losing him? I inject a note of simpering pleading into my breathless loving-wife voice: "Hoooooney. I can't get around. I can't get food."
"So call an Uber or something," he snaps, his patience breaking. "What do I care?"
I suck in a breath. He's never said anything quite so callous to me before. Michael, too, seems to realize his mistake, and says in a gentler and guiltier tone, "I'm sorry, Nat. I'm just overworked right now, is all."
Overworked, I bet. Living it up in your island paradise with your hot young wife and your beautiful family. Overworked, my ass. I hate the bastard—
No, I love him, I adore him, I remind myself with teeth gritted.
"I understand, sugar," I say, patient and kind. "But I'd really like it if you'd sign the papers. It would only take a minute for you to sign them and send them right back. I'm sort of desperate."
He's silent for a moment. Reluctantly, he says, "Well, all right, I suppose. But before I tell you my address, there's something you have to know."
Here we go. I wait with bated breath. What will he admit to me?
"I'm not, er…in Wales, currently. Not currently. I mean, I have been there at other times, but…"
Gotcha, I think triumphantly.
"What? What do you mean?" I ask liltingly, playing the concerned wife.
"Er, the company transfers me back and forth between Wales and Saint Lucia. In the Caribbean."
"You've been in the Caribbean all this time?" For the first time I allow some indignation and accusation to slip into my voice, and it's delicious. I hope he's quaking in his boots.
"I didn't want to…uh…worry you."
He does sound a little nervous. I savour it. "That's okay, pumpkin pie. As long as you're alright, I guess I don't care where you are," I lie through my teeth.
He rattles off some address in Castries, Saint Lucia. A city I'd never even heard of before today. I copy it diligently, and ask him to repeat it—twice—so I don't get a single digit wrong. I can hear the nervousness in his voice growing more and more with every time he repeats the address of the epicenter of his alternate life. Oh, yes, he's afraid I'm going to find him out. Yes, he's afraid. And he ought to be.
There are no car papers. There's nothing wrong with his car. I have a new car now, and it works perfectly fine. The only thing I will send to Michael's secret home in the Caribbean is a yellow envelope with my old return address and new phone number stamped upon it.
You get to know someone after twenty-five years, even if they only spend a cumulative three or four years with you. You learn their habits, their likes and dislikes, their weaknesses. You learn that they never check the mailbox. You learn that they always forget about it, or they're too lazy to do it. You learn that they relegate this task to their wife. Or wives.
I'm guessing Michael hasn't changed much, in the Caribbean. Oh, maybe he's happier and more lively and full of fun and sun, but I can bet he doesn't check the mailbox any more often over there than he does over here. He'll leave it to his woman. I'm betting that even if he's biting his nails over me sending those papers, he'll still forget to check the mailbox himself.
Oh, yes, I'm betting on it.
The yellow envelope is carefully labelled: To Michael Sharpe's Wife, and within are the pictures and a short letter addressed to two people: Mr. and Mrs. Michael Sharpe of Saint Lucia.
Two things will come out of its delivery. One: perhaps Michael will find it first. It won't be as delicious if he does, but I'll savour the panic I know he must be feeling as he tries desperately to hide it from his woman. Two: his woman will find it and read it before him, and this is the outcome I'm desperately hoping for.
Almost two weeks after I sent the envelope off, I receive a phone call. I'm sitting at my kitchen table absorbed in a good book when the ringing makes me jump in my seat. Again—like they did when I received the envelope—my nerves are telling me: Warning. Danger. And I totally believe them. My instincts have never failed me before, except when I fell in love with Michael.
I pick up the phone, not sure what to expect. "Hello?"
An unfamiliar female voice, harsh and loud. "Is this Natalie Sharpe?"
"Natalie Durand, actually," I correct her. I've gone back to my maiden name.
"Were you married to Michael Sharpe, though?" she demands, impatient. The line crackles and hisses. She's calling from far away, and she has a slight accent that I can't identify. I can guess who she is, but now that I'm actually speaking with her, I'm not sure I'm ready for the confrontation. My heart quails and my stomach quivers. I almost wish she hadn't called, that I'd had more time to prepare for the ramifications of what I've done.
"Yes, I was," I admit. It's a shameful confession, now. And I'm still married to him. The instant he comes back, I fully intend to start divorce proceedings, but until then we remain husband and wife.
I hear a loud noise on the other side of the line: a huff, a sigh, a yell, or a combination of all three. She says, "You sent that letter, then. How did you get all those pictures of my children?"
So it'll be a confrontation, then. I say truthfully, "It's just like I said in the letter. I don't know who sent them to me."
She interrupts me. "You know, I don't believe you are married to my husband. I think you're a liar, or a jealous ex-girlfriend or something, and you're trying to hurt my marriage. It won't work."
My revenge is not going as planned. This moronic woman will not believe me, and she'll tell Michael about the ridiculous lies being spread about him. Then Michael will come back here and kill me, and then he'll divorce my dead body, and then he'll go back to his naïve stupid wife and live in paradise with his perfect family forever.
Oh, well. As long as I'm free of him.
I carefully say, "Listen to me, please. What's your name?"
"You don't get to know my name. Leave me and my children alone."
I brace myself to hear the line click, but it doesn't. She's still here. I say gently, for perhaps gentleness is the key: "I know Michael Sharpe. I was married to him for twenty-five years."
"His name is Michael Jones. Not Sharpe. Jones. You're a liar."
"His name is Michael Sharpe," I say more forcefully, "and I've been married to him for twenty-five years, and I've known him since we were in high school, and I've miscarried three of his babies, and if you want to know how much of a lie your life has been, you'd damn well better listen to me."
Silence on the other end.
Just in case she didn't hang up, I continue. "My name is Natalie Durand Sharpe. I'm fifty-one years old. I met Michael in chemistry class in high school. We were both sixteen. We were partners on a lab. Did he ever tell you how he got that scar on his hand? That was my fault. I dropped a glass beaker and he cut himself badly trying to pick it up. I rode with him to the emergency room. Anyone else would have cried, but he couldn't stop laughing. He laughs when he's in pain. That's one of the first things I learned about him."
Silence. I'm convinced I'm talking to nobody, but I can't stop; I'm blabbering now, emptying myself of all this knowledge about Michael. "We got married when we were twenty-six. We were thirty when he started to disappear for months at a time. He told me he had business. I wanted to go with him. I told him I'd go with him anywhere, but he'd get angry every time I brought it up. He'd come back for a few weeks every year. And with every year, he got more distant. It was like I didn't have a husband anymore, but I loved him so much I'd put up with anything. I got pregnant three times. I wanted so badly to have a baby—his baby—but I kept losing my babies. The last one was only five years ago." My voice catches, is on the verge of breaking. "When I saw those pictures of you and your children…you can't imagine. I was so jealous."
Nothing but quiet on the other end, still. I'm nearly crying when I say to the silence: "When he leaves for a few weeks every few months, where does he tell you he's going? Tell me. Where does he say he's gone?"
I truly think she's gone, and I'm about to hang up the phone, but I hear a quiet voice on the other end of the line. "He says he's on a business retreat."
"He's not," I tell her, relief coursing through me that she's still listening. "He's with me."
"Twenty-five years you've been married?" she says distantly. "We've been married for eighteen. Together for twenty."
"I'll send you any proof you want," I promise. "Anything. Documents. Photographs. For God's sake, I'll even send you my wedding ring. I just want you to know that this man is not your husband. He's mine."
Something rings false, too possessive, in my last few words, even as they leave my mouth unbidden. He's not yours, he's mine. But he's not anymore. I've done everything to remove myself from Michael, and I know that he was never mine in the first place. I should not still be claiming him. Especially not to the woman he truly loves. I have no right.
She says, her voice less harsh and more questioning: "My name is Lara Jones. I think I've been married to your husband."
"I think so, too."
Something connects us, we two strangers who never would have met were it not for the existence of Michael Sharpe, cheating bastard extraordinaire. From America to Saint Lucia, thousands of miles, an invisible thread links two women who have nothing in common at all. Nothing but a husband.
Two days later, I return home from work to discover three messages on my answering machine.
Michael's unmistakable voice: "What the hell are you thinking, Natalie? What the hell were you thinking?" Then, a full minute of silence, and the click of a phone hanging up.
A message from Lara, tearful and regretful and hesitant: "Um…hello, Natalie. It's Lara. I just wanted to let you know that I've left him. I've told him to get out of my house and leave me and my kids alone. I'm—" Her voice cracks heavily. "I'm…I'm not sure I've made the right choice. I only thought about it for a day. I talked to him and he admitted it right away, and it turned into a huge fight and I just told him to leave. My kids…especially my daughter, she's…they're all devastated. They keep asking me why and I just don't have the heart to tell them. But…but…I wanted to thank you, uh… Just, thank you. Things might not turn out for the best, but…thank you for telling me, anyway. You were honest. Thank you for being honest." She sniffles, and the line goes dead.
Then, Michael again. The background sounds like a car or perhaps a bus, rushing along a highway. "Natalie, here's what you're going to do," he says, sounding more furious and controlling than I've ever heard him. "You're going to call Lara and tell her you lied. Tell her everything you said was a lie and you're just my sister trying to pull a bad prank on me, or…for God's sake, do something. I'm not going to lose my wife and my kids just because you were emotional and you made a bad judgment call. There are kids involved, Natalie. Think for once. Think. I'm coming home right now and everything had damn well better be fixed with Lara by the time I get there." And the phone abruptly goes dead.
I stare at the phone, unblinking, for a long time after the last message. Hatred is sweeping through me, the swamp bubbling up into my throat with the taste of acid bile. I have half a mind to call Lara and tell her Michael had three other wives in different countries, so that she will never, ever, ever forgive him in a million years.
If he thinks I'm going to be the good wife, that I'll fix everything for him and be his happy unassuming little homebody again, he's got another thing coming. I am a thing of revenge and bitterness, not the sweet, always-waiting woman he knew. He doesn't know me anymore, and I'm not sure he ever did.
A day later, Michael has tracked me down. I don't know how he did it. I didn't leave anything at our old house that would hint at where I had gone. I didn't ever predict I would want him to find me. But somehow, he has, and here he is.
It's Saturday, and I'm at home, still asleep at nine in the morning. His slamming on the front door wakes me up, and I sit up in bed, frozen with fear. I don't know who it is, and my mind doesn't immediately go to Michael; with the aggression and the grunting and the slamming, my mind goes to burglar or robber or murderer on the loose. But then I hear his voice:
"Natalie, if you're in there, open the door!"
I say nothing. I don't want to talk to him. He doesn't deserve to talk to me.
"Natalie! Please!" His voice floods with desperation. Despite my fear, I feel the smallest hint of satisfaction. Good. You'd better be desperate.
"I just want to talk. I'm sorry about everything," he calls, quieter. "If you don't help me, I might lose my kids, my job…everything. Lara's father is a big CEO. He's the one who hired me for my job in Saint Lucia. If she tells him we're breaking up because I cheated, he'll fire me, and I'll be lucky if I get hired to flip burgers. I could lose everything."
"Good, you horrible narcissistic liar," I murmur very quietly, so no one can hear my venom except me and whatever insects are crawling in the corners of my room.
"Please," he calls again. Then there's silence, and I hear nothing.
After a while, I roll over in bed and try to sleep again. But my mind returns to everything that's happened, and I can't find peace.
On a bright and sunny Wednesday, at four in the afternoon, just after I've gotten off work, I decide not to be a coward anymore.
I drive my shiny new car straight to the house Michael and I shared for decades. I know the way better than I know the lines on my own hand. You could set me anywhere on the planet without a map and I would still be able to find my way back to my old home.
Into the driveway I pull, tires crackling and crunching against the stones. Michael and I often fought over whether to pave the driveway. Oh, we didn't fight—nothing we did could be classified as fighting. Instead, I sometimes vaguely brought up the concept, Michael shot it down immediately, and I conceded. Anything to make my husband happy. I wanted a paved driveway, to make it easier to get in and out; Michael didn't want to bother. Oh, but of course he didn't. He never had to drive in and out. He was never home.
I don't know whether he is in the house. The cowardly part of me wants him not to answer the door, so I can go home and hide once again. The angry part of me wants him to pick a fight, so I can have an excuse to slap him and take him to task. The neutral part of me simply wants to make things right. As right as they can be, now.
I knock on the door. It's strangely odd, to knock on the door of a house that was mine for so long.
Almost immediately, the door swings open, and I'm left with a curled fist knocking on open air. Michael glares at me. He's unshaven, his hair is mussed, he's not wearing a shirt, and his black track pants are torn at the knee. He looks like an alcoholic, or the kind of guy whose house the Girl Scouts know well to avoid. I'm not sure whether to be sad or satisfied.
After a moment of silence, he snaps, "So?"
I'm taken aback. "So what?"
"So, when are you going to apologize?"
Shock courses through me, then anger. "Apologize!"
"Yes! Apologize. Do you know what you've done to me?"
I could almost laugh, if I weren't so enraged. "You…you bastard. You led me on for decades. You fucked another woman to kingdom come while I was waiting at home for you like a good little wife. You raised a goddamn family. You couldn't be bothered to look at me even while you were home!"
He shakes his head, lets out a breath. "Natalie. You've cost me my job."
Am I supposed to feel sorry for him? I let out a laugh, a sharp bark that instantly reminds me of my mother. "You cost me my life. I wasted my life on you."
"You cost me two lives!" he shouts, and the way his body is tensed, I am almost worried he will take a swing at me. I almost hope he does, if only so I can swing back.
"What was I supposed to do, huh? When I found out you had a pretty young wife and three kids on the side? Was I supposed to pretend nothing was wrong? Was I supposed to just sit here and wait for you to come home like always so you could passionlessly screw me with your limp little needle? Get a clue, you selfish waste of air." I'm spitting the words like punches, and I hope they hit him in the gut. I didn't know I was capable of being so nasty.
To my surprise, he seems to melt. His shoulders lose their tension, and he lets out an enormous breath, and reaches up and rubs the back of his neck in a way that used to take the air straight from my lungs, but now just leaves me cold.
"I'm sorry, Natalie. I really am. I did something wrong, something really wrong, and I'm sorry. But you did something wrong, too. You didn't handle it the right way. You destroyed my life. My kids' lives. Lara hasn't got a job, and I'm not employed anymore, because her dad went ahead and fired me as soon as she told him what happened. Our daughter was hoping to go to college a year early. Now we might not be able to afford it."
"Sell your huge beachfront McMansion, then, for all I care," I say, but my heart's not in it anymore. I am imagining the faces of those kids, who could've been mine—those kids with no dad, a lost mom, and a broken home. Maybe I did the wrong thing.
He lets out another breath. "We did, actually. I mean, Lara's selling it. She wants to move back to Austria and raise the kids there. That's where she's from."
"That's good for her. I'm glad she's getting away from you."
"I'm not," he says, anger creeping into the lines of his face. "I loved her—I still do. And I love my kids to hell and back, and now I'm losing them. If you had just waited, just asked me about it when I got home, instead of going on this little imaginative witch hunt of yours—"
"Witch hunt!" I explode. "All I did was tell her the truth! She deserved to know! And if I had waited until you got home to talk to you about it, what would you have done? Left me quietly with no consequences and gone home and lived it up with your family? No, that would have been too easy. You don't deserve a clean break with me or with her. You're a cheating bastard and everything that happens to you, you deserve. You deserve all of it." I turn around and say over my shoulder, "And I hope Lara takes your kids to the goddamn moon."
Michael's patience is broken; his face turns the color of a beet and he grabs my arm, tight, and keeps me from leaving. I struggle to break free, and scream, "Let me go!"
He pulls me into the house and slams the door before I can get my bearings. There are no windows in the foyer, and he hasn't bothered to turn the lights on, so it's dim and dark, and Michael and I are just shifting shadows. His black silhouette hisses, "Natalie, you know what? I was wrong about you. You're a bitch. You enjoyed ruining my life."
He's not wrong; I did. But I'm not going to admit it. I'm starting to fear this man I once loved, in this dark house that now seems so unfamiliar, like enemy territory. I say, "Let me out of the house. Now."
"You are going to call Lara and tell her you were lying. You are going to do it now." He yanks his cell phone out of his pocket and shoves it at me, its screen glowing the time: 4:37. "Now!"
I don't take it, and it drops to the floor with a clack. "I won't," I snarl stubbornly, even though a nervousness is humming in me, telling me I should be careful and do what he says. Would Michael hurt me? I don't know. Maybe if I pushed him far enough, and he has been pushed very far.
"Please." There is a brokenness to him now, in the slant of his shoulders and the tilt of his head, although I can't see his face. "I need you to do this. You're the only one that can save me."
For some unknown reason, despite all the competing anger and disdain I feel, an unwelcome alien emotion joins their ranks: guilt, and its bedfellow, pity. To my own shock, for one instant, I consider it. Consider calling Lara Jones and telling her I am a liar. Consider casting myself as the homewrecker, in a direct defiance of reality, as though she is the leading woman in Michael's life and I am only a jealous, guilt-ridden understudy.
With defiance and a resolve I never knew I had, I sweep it all away. What a foolish thing to consider! I will not lie to save this man's reputation, or his job, or his fake life with his false wife. I won't let him keep on playing doubles, or worse, cast me aside like I was only ever an unwanted burden tied around his neck. I will keep being that burden, and Michael can struggle and drown with the weight of me.
I play with the idea of smashing his phone under my foot, but at the last second I decide it would be too childish. Instead, I reach for the door handle, and to my surprise, my husband does not try to stop me.
When I open the door, a bar of light shoots into the room, illuminating me and leaving Michael, who is off to the left, in darkness. I give him a simple "Goodbye," and I leave, and get in my car, and go off to my new life. And I will never see him again.
I drive purposefully and with a confidently straight back, but the truth is, I have no idea where I am going. I don't want to go home; the idea of being alone in a quiet apartment sends chills through me, for reasons I can't explain. I don't want to be alone right now.
Instead, I head to a shopping mall. I park near the door and wander through the buzzingly-busy halls, past department stores and couples walking hand in hand and gaggles of young friends who laugh and screech together. In the food court, I sit down alone at a table and people-watch for hours on end.
When the mall has almost closed, someone sits down at the table across from me: an elderly man, frail and ancient, with hair so fine and white it almost can't be seen. His movements are slow and awkward, his limbs seemingly unable to bend. His wife, gentle and kind, patiently helps him sit down, then goes to fetch their food. They eat quietly together, and although they do not speak much—and even when they do, I can't hear what they say—I see the love and devotion of decades spent together.
Something strikes me as I look at the two. I won't ever, ever have that. I won't ever have the luxury of knowing someone so well.
Even if I got married today, this very second, and stayed married until I died, I might not live long enough to stay married for longer than I was to Michael. Even if I married at this very instant to someone I adored more than life itself—and someone who actually cared for me in return—I would never have long enough to savour them, never have long enough to get to know them better than the back of my own hand, all the scars and flaws.
Suddenly I want that desperately, with a fierceness I didn't know I could feel. I want to grow old with someone who loves me. And my years of waiting on Michael alone, incessantly and obsessively, have added up to a wasted life. I am a middle-aged woman, friendless and unlovable, who doesn't know how to do anything but wait. I have grown old alone.
I wish I had left Michael years ago. If I hadn't been delusional and stupid, I would have. I could have left him when I was thirty, a young woman; I could have told him, "I won't wait for a man who won't be here with me. That's not a marriage." And I could have left and found a man who would love me and who I would love, and who would stay with me, and I could have his children and be happy.
I've developed a theory: perhaps my womb wasn't barren. Perhaps life simply cannot flourish in a relationship so devoid of love, so defined by absence.
Or maybe I'm just infertile. Who knows? I will never know.
These thoughts have brought misery to me, and I am on the verge of tears. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should never have said anything, should have unhappily stayed in the status quo of my sham life. At least I had a man, if only in name.
I attempt to force myself, angrily, out of this line of thought. I get up and stalk from the mall and don't look back. But I cannot get that old couple's image out of my head.
"I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." I destroyed several worlds: Michael's hidden treasure trove in Castries; Lara's sham marriage; their kids' lives. I swept in, a wrecking ball shaped like a woman, and demolished everything. I no longer feel so triumphant about my actions, or so pure about my intentions. Natalie, avenging angel? No. Natalie, scorned woman who made an innocent family feel her wrath. In the end it was between Michael and me. I should have left Lara and the kids out of it.
I feel nothing short of miserable. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Nothing else can be said or done.
In a perfect world, I confront Michael and ask him at least two out of a possible three questions.
Q: Did you love me?
Q: If you did, why did you leave me?
Q: If you didn't, why did you stay?
In the end, I agree to meet with Michael to discuss things.
We meet at twelve noon in a small mom-and-pop diner, with dirty windows that a young man is busily cleaning from the outside. We sit beside the young man, speaking in soft tones, as he stares at us without paying any attention at all. His rag squeaks against the window; soapy water lazily seeps down, turning the thing translucent. Half-empty coffee mugs sit before us on the ketchup-stained plastic table, a garish plaid pattern which matches the cracked plastic seats. Bright neon lights flicker everywhere. The diner reminds me of our marriage: it's fake, but at least it attempts to be some kind of pretty, right?
In a perfect world, I'd ask Michael my three questions, and triumphantly "a-ha!" when he gave three wrong answers. In this world, I don't ask him any of them, because that's not what we are here to talk about. Instead, we talk about the divorce.
"I'm going to sell the house," says Michael. "I just simply can't afford it anymore."
From the look on his face—the hopeful tone in his voice—I wonder if Michael expects me to feel pity on him, and offer to help him somehow. I don't. He's selling the scene of the crime? Good. Give it to some young couple who really love each other.
"Okay. I have no objection to that." I sip my lukewarm, dishwatery coffee.
He gives a twisted expression, a semi-scowl, as if he expected a different response. To my own slight disgust, I feel a thrill of pleasure in my gut. He's upset? Good. That is my spoil of war.
"Shouldn't women care about their home?" he asks, sitting back and crossing his arms. "You lived there for two decades. You really feel nothing?"
I am not going to dignify that with a response. Yes, I lived in the house and looked after it and made it pretty, but that house was fucking empty, and not even my human presence could change that fact. I stare at him, saying nothing.
Michael scoffs and looks away. "Fine. The house is gone."
"And what of your wife? Kids?" I inquire, hoping the question stings. "Where are they going to end up?"
Now it's his turn to not dignify my question with an answer. "That's none of your business," he says, cold.
I suppose he's right. Not my kids. Not my wife. I redirect, to something I've regretted. "When I left the house, I left behind the jewelry you gave me. The diamonds for our tenth, the emeralds, the white gold ring. All of it."
I was going to ask for it back, but I realize how the request will sound. It's tantamount to asking for a memento of our love. I shift my request. "I want you to take it to a pawn shop somewhere, sell it for whatever price you can get, and give the money to me."
I can't tell if he's hurt, but he's certainly offended. "Give the money to you? I bought all that stuff!"
"And gifted it to me. It's mine."
"So why don't you sell it, then?"
I imagine how cool I am, a vengeful, man-rejecting Artemis to this man's flimsy Zeus. My arrows are stronger than his lightning bolts. "I don't want anything to do with it."
"Oh. Except the money, right?" he sneers.
"That's right. Except the money." Damned if he's going to get a rise out of me.
"Okay. Okay. Consider it a condition for you getting out of my life forever."
"You don't have to ask me twice."
He thinks of something: I see the fearful lightbulb in his eyes. "I suppose you'll want a cut of
whatever I get off of the house, too?"
Of course I don…. The thought sputters in my mind. Maybe I do.
"My mother gave us twenty-five thousand dollars for a down-payment," I recall. "You remember that, don't you?"
"Of course I do." He looks like the recollection is painful. Yes, that's right, you bastard: you were dirt poor in the 1990s. You had no money to buy gum from a convenience store. You needed to rely on your mommy-in-law to get yourself a house. You emasculated idiot.
"Then I'll expect twenty-five thousand of whatever you sell the house for. Does that sound fair to you?"
I'm delighted he brought this up, because if he hadn't, I would never have asked. He grimaces. "Yes," he says shortly.
Twenty-five thousand dollars will pay my rent for almost two years. I remain cool on the outside. Inside, I seethe with delight.
Michael must really hate me, to want to get rid of me so badly.
Maybe I can squeeze one more condition out of him.
"Another thing," I say.
He winces for the blow. "What?"
"Tell me, Michael. Did you buy a different wedding ring for your marriage to Lara? Or did you just use the same one?"
"The same one," he says. "But I don't get what—"
"You will sell that ring with my jewellery and give the money to me." It's not a request; you can hear it in my tone. I imagine my eyes: harder than diamonds.
This time, defiances rages in him. "Hold on. You're not going to squeeze every last penny out of me, Natalie. This ring is mine. I bought it for myself."
"If you do not sell the ring, I will sue you for everything left in that house, and I will make our divorce proceedings a living hell," I respond smoothly. "You know I will."
He does know. I can see the gears turning in his little brain. "You really hate me, don't you?" he finally says.
"It goes without saying."
He raises his left hand. I know every vein, every hair, better than my own; I have spent hours studying this hand until it's more familiar to me than my body is. His fingers are skinny, gnarled, the joints disproportionately large, the blue veins bulging, the fingernails clipped short, and a simple gold band on the ring finger. He pulls it off and slides it over the table to me. He's ransoming the smooth operation of whatever's left of his life.
"Is that all?" he asks.
I take the ring. I put it into the breast pocket of my white blouse. It is not heavy. I cannot feel it.
My husband does something surprising then. His elbow on the table, he leans his face into his hand, so that I cannot see his eyes—only his mouth, curved into a pathetic grin. He begins to chuckle, and then he laughs so loud that all I can see are teeth.