Why We're Not Married
It was no surprise to me that summer when my mother lost the charm on her bracelet my father gave her for her birthday. A silver heart no bigger than the tip of her thumb, lost in some garden incident, never to be seen or cared for again. It was that time in July when the figs ripen to the deepest shades of purple, just shy of bursting through their skin. Not even the aluminum pans, each swaying from a piece of fishing wire, could keep the chickadees from swarming the trees in the backyard. The sun set the entire city alight that summer. A piercing light constraining us all indoors most days, or to the beach to hide underneath umbrellas or bury ourselves in the salt and shade of the sea. Some days I thought we’d all catch on fire only to have our ashes blown away and forgotten once autumn came. Parts of my memory contain days lying under the bed of my room, and nights lying on the lawn hoping some foreign being amongst the stars would take me up to a world that can only be imagined in the minds of elementary school children.
Since school got out in June my parents had spoken no more than a fistful of words to each other, something I refused to acknowledge until about a month into my vacation, while unsticking my thighs from one of the rainbow-colored garage sale folding chairs we took to the beach, when my mother called to ask me to tell my father she wouldn’t be home to cook dinner.
“Can’t you just call and tell him yourself?” I asked.
“I asked you to do it. Is that a problem?” In reality it was not a problem, just foolish and childish of her to ask. I hung up the phone, picked up my glass of watered-down lemonade and pulled myself off the plastic. Through the screen door of the backyard I saw Dad’s head stuck in the fridge, rising up and down as if he’d find something he hadn’t discovered before. I wedged my foot through the crack of the door and pushed the screen back to walk through.
“Mom says she won’t be home to cook dinner,” I told him, placing my glass in the sink of oatmeal-crusted dishes and continuing up the kitchen stairs to my bedroom.
“I figured as much,” he called out. “It’s after six.” I turned to look at him before going completely up the stairs and saw him pulling a tub of peanut butter and a carton of just expired milk from the fridge. And the moment I saw this happen, saw my father pull out a spoon from a drawer and stick it into the peanut butter, I wondered how many nights he’d be eating dinner alone.
While my father hunted for food, and his wife, I often found myself burning blisters into my feet while walking to Jenny’s house down the road. This was the same summer Jenny McCormick lost her bow-legged walk—and her virginity. Two crosses off her Pre-Senior Year Bucket List before the May flowers had proper time to be under watered and shoved in plastic bags on their way back to Lowe’s. Thanks to divorcing parents and one run-over turtle fiasco, ninth through eleventh grade had been hell for Jenny. A hell that resulted in nights escaping through her bedroom window and running down the street to come sleep on the floor of my room. She used to dream her parents would come into her room trying to steal her away for themselves.
“It reminded me of that story in the Bible where they cut the baby in half.”
“Since when do you read the Bible?” I replied.
“You’re missing the point, Lara Jean. What if my parents come in here one night and try to saw me in half? What’ll I do then?”
“Well, then you’d be dead. So I’m not sure you’d be doing much of anything. Plus, that never happened in the Bible. You’ve got your story confused,” I said.
“Confused or not, I’m still sleeping in your room.” At the time Jenny’s story struck me as peculiar, aside from obvious reasons, because the closest she’d ever come to religion was watching lustful clergy run a nuthouse on Jim Newton’s Horror Hour. Not exactly the average idea of finding solace and guidance in Christ’s workers.
Two weeks later I was sitting on Jenny’s bed, watching her do jumping jacks on an outdated grey shag rug she’d stolen from her grandmother's basement. After over a year of leg braces and corrective shoes, Jenny was grateful for the opportunity to jump with both feet facing forward.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to sleep at my house anymore,” I said.
She stopped mid-jump, clapping her hands back to her side. “And why is that?”
“Because I think my parents are breaking up.”
She stared at me for a moment, bewildered, and then started jumping again. “What’s that got to do with me?”
“I think I’m going to want to come here instead.” My house had turned into a silent civil war over domestic space, and I was sure it must have been how Sylvia Plath felt writing The Bell Jar. Both witness and star of one’s own demise. Editor to the makings of a hot mess and romantic horror story. Self-therapist afterwards.
“Doubt that.” She stopped jumping and sat on the floor with her legs crossed and looked up at me. “At least your parents will divorce and probably actually go live their own lives. You won’t have to look at them moping around all the time.” Her statement was right for reasons I can only now sympathize with. Quite possibly the worst part of the ending of her parents’ twenty-one-year marriage was that neither had moved out after the divorce. Not for long, at least. I wasn’t sure who was left more miserable—Jenny having to continuously watch the two halves that were now her family coexist under one roof, or Jenny’s parents, who I then and now believe stayed in the house together only to keep the screams of Jenny’s brother away.
This idea I’d come to while staying at Jenny’s house right after her parents had divorced. At the time, the plan was that Mr. McCormick would move out, and Mrs. McCormick would stay with the children. For three nights straight nothing but gasping shrieks filled the air, leaving me and Jenny both wanting to crawl the walls and claw ourselves out of the room. It wasn’t until Mr. McCormick returned that the screaming ceased, and for the first time ever I got down on my knees and praised the Lord. Thinking of my own child now, I suppose that I’d stay with my husband too if I heard the violating screeches that came from Jenny’s brother’s room those long years ago. Sounds that stopped my breath and made my bones ache. Made me want to know what afflicted him to make him sound so ill.
In those years I preferred to see the hollow faces of my parents in one house than to see either of them happy in whatever domain they would create for themselves. I didn't need the 5:30 dinners around the dining room table, or the car rides to see Pappy every other weekend. I didn't need any of the makings of a Hallmark family. Just twistedly comforting knowledge that both my parents lay in bed under the same roof for the sake of appeasing me. This same thinking is what has led me to stay with George all the time I have. A deep and foolish desire to pacify a child.
My father’s pacifier of choice for my mother was jewelry. And she sucked every bit of it up as if every piece had been hand crafted to suit her ego. If Pandora never made a dime off of anyone else, they most certainly made one off my father those years he and my mother were married. By the time I was ten, a charm for my mother’s bracelet was no longer a gift she wanted, but it was one she expected to receive almost every holiday. “I’ll get a charm every Mother’s Day till the day I die,” she said once when I pulled the short white bag from behind my back. “I’ll have to wear two bracelets on each arm just to fit them all.”
The day the charm went missing, Oscar Wall from next door and his pudgy friend George Stanley came to tell me the neighborhood pool was drained. “They found Mr. Franco’s cat in it,” Oscar said.
“Dead. Definitely dead,” stated George. “No telling when they’ll get it fixed.” I’d been sitting on the lawn next to my mother, picking away what was left of the grass after she dug hole after hole to fill with false indigos. The heat had evaporated every ounce of moisture from the soil, leaving the digging process a tormenting one that birthed the beginning of calluses on my hands. While my mother punctured the ground with her trowel with a patience and familiarity I could not mimic, I resorted to digging with my hands, shedding the remainder of my nail polish into the roots of the flowers.
“The science teacher? Why was his cat in our pool?” I asked, wiping the shards of grass stuck to my hands on my back pockets.
“He lives just down the way,” Oscar said, pointing west down the rows of tepee roofs and inactive chimneys, all diminishing in size as I looked onward.
“Well, that figures,” I’d said. “Mr. Franco is known for fucking stuff up for everyone.” A fact easily proven by his accidentally setting light to the chemistry lab a few months prior, and a fact that my mother chastised me for vocalizing.
“I don’t want them to think I’m the kind of mother that lets you curse in front of her,” she’d said, throwing her trowel and gloves aside and wiping the beads of sweat on her forehead away with the back of her hand.
“Since when are you the kind of mother that cares what teenagers think about you?” She hadn’t bothered answering, just kept sitting there as if she was waiting for me to pull the words out of the air and shove them back into my mouth. My father walked out of the front door holding my mother’s favorite gardening cup, capped with a lid to keep all the “dirt and must” from invading her near-translucent iced tea, and an iced-over strawberry popsicle I devoured the second he handed it over.
He took a seat in front of us, stretching his legs out as he lay back, staring at what was left of the sunlight for the day. “What a day,” he said. “What a damn day.”
“Oh, what exactly have you done today?” my mother asked, slurping the tea left at the bottom of her cup.
My father looked over at my mother a moment before speaking. “I don’t know,” my father said, glancing to me before focusing his attention back above. “I guess the bathroom painted itself and the garage cleaned itself out.”
“I didn’t know cleaning out the garage was such a draining task,” my mother said, rolling her eyes.
“No, you wouldn’t know, now would you? We can’t all be amateur gardeners.”
I flicked my popsicle stick across the yard attempting to cut the conversation short.
My father picked himself up in a slow, steady slouch of a manner I’d grown accustomed to seeing. “I’m going in,” he declared.
“Help me up?” My mother extended her hand. Her way of saying she wanted the fight to be over. My father reached out to her, firmly grasping her hand even after she stood in front of him looking down at their hands together.
I remember him turning her hand between the two of his, flipping the bracelet from right to left in search of what he knew was not there. “Where’s the charm I gave you?” he’d asked.
My mother looked down to the bracelet, examining it herself. “What charm?”
“The silver heart. It used to be right here,” he said, pointing to the now empty space between her initials and the soccer ball she’d bought after I won my last tournament.
“I don’t know,” she responded. “I guess it fell off while I was out here.” At the time, I wondered why neither of them bothered to look for where the charm might have gone. Took the time to pluck up indigos or search bushes to find one of the last pieces of evidence that the unity between the two of them ever existed. But by this point the love was lost—and neither of them felt much like searching for it. The rest of the summer I searched for the charm myself. Digging up and replanting flowers in hopes I’d find it under the roots, waiting for me to show up. The last memory of that day is me wanting to sit at the bottom of the hollow pool Mr. Franco let his cat drown in.
I assured Jenny that in no way did I want her to ask her therapist to see me. This was Jenny’s gift from her parents after the divorce. Two hours a week to talk about whatever her heart desired, which mostly included what she thought the boys at school thought of her. How some died to know what color the cotton sheets that fitted her bed were, and what imprints of her body might haunt them.
“I just don’t see what the point is talking about my parents in there,” she would say whenever I asked her how the sessions went. “My parents are already divorced. What’s there to talk about?”
“I don’t know,” I would say. “Maybe they think it’ll keep you from taking anything out on them. Someone else to vent to or something.”
“That’s what I’ve got you for, obviously.” And I guess it was an obvious thing. Second to my parents, Jenny was the best thing I had going. But at the time neither of us were interested in pouring our hearts and problems out to one another. That summer would not be filled with soul searching and coping mechanisms; instead it was chocolate milkshakes and sunbathing, and learning what falling in and out of love looked like from my dining room table, and the backseat of a car or two.
Once I made a list of everything I could possibly want to go right that summer. I wanted my parents to love each other again. For my mother to want to be at home instead of trying to escape my father. I wanted to know what it felt like to find someone and be able to hold onto them. To trust in them. At the time, I was uncertain of what late nights roaming the city meant. Why I couldn’t find it in myself to stay put. But I feel now as though they were about searching for everything that had managed to slip through my fingers. Any sign that meant family and love could be concrete. There was no one shelling out one hundred bucks a week to set me on this discovery.
Two days after his cat died, Mr. Franco had a funeral for him in his backyard. The entire street came to support him, even a few teachers from school, who stood next to him while he said goodbye to Mr. Whitaker, his twenty-pound oil-black cat. The funeral was as sad and pitiful as one might imagine. Mr. Franco’s live-in girlfriend said a blessing over the patch of dirt that was now Mr. Whitaker’s eternal home. She wore baggy ashen overalls and a raven-color turtleneck that I could tell was cutting off her circulation, because it was “Mr. Whitaker’s favorite outfit.”
I may have been sad about it if I could have gotten past the ridiculousness of it all. Mr. Franco and his girlfriend were in strong competition with each other over who made the funeral the biggest spectacle—Mr. Franco with his tear-soaked raspberry cheeks and deep breathing throughout the blessing, or his girlfriend and her sweaty turtleneck and speech about why Mr. Whitaker was the most intelligent cat she had ever met, and was sure to live a “full and prosperous afterlife.”
When she stopped speaking we all had to go around and say what we liked about the cat. It was a rather short list, as many people hated him. My mother said she liked how he never climbed her fence at night like some of the other cats in the neighborhood did. This she said while looking at Mrs. Montgomery, whose cat was often found in our trashcan in the morning while Mrs. Montgomery did yoga in front of her living room window. Her seventy-year-old rump was not exactly the scenery the neighborhood was looking for, a point illustrated when Oscar and George would shoot foam darts at her window as they walked past. My dad said he was grateful for Mr. Whitaker because he kept rats out of the house, and exterminators could get pretty expensive. I said I wasn’t grateful for him at all because he never did anything for me but cause me problems. Mr. Franco let out another deep breath and with that the ceremony was over.
About a week later the pool was refilled and Jenny, Oscar, and I were first in line when the chains were taken off the gate and the “Open” sign put back up. For weeks it was all we could think about. Stretching our toes underneath the push of the water, feeling weightless both in thought and body. But somehow the reunion seemed anticlimactic. For me at least. While the pool was drained it felt like exactly the place I wanted to be. Where I needed to be. Away from home with the only concern being getting in before dark. But now I stood just shy of the deep end, gasping for breath and feeling an overwhelming urge to be on the other side of the gate.
“Are you alright?” Jenny asked, looking at me. “Why’s your face look like that?”
“Yeah, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Oscar chimed in. “Is it Mr. Franco’s cat? Do you see him out here?” He leaned in slow and deliberately like he was telling me a secret he didn’t want Jenny to hear.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Jenny said. “Of course he’s not out here. He’s burning in cat Hell right now.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just need to get out.” I sat on the concrete just outside of the pool and watched Jenny and Oscar get in while I tried to catch my breath. Jenny lay back on the water with her arms and legs fanning in and out, and I somehow felt she was as relieved to have the pool refilled as I thought I might have been. Oscar mimicked her on the other side and now the only thing that seemed out of place was me. The water wasn’t too hot or too cold, but there was also nothing right about it. At first I hated Mr. Franco for letting his cat get drowned in the pool, but now I hated more that it was refilled. For the past couple of weeks its abandonment was one of the only things I could relate to.
He was attractive in that way injured dogs were on those pet adoption commercials. Someone who was usually ignored when roaming the streets, but when given a platform and fifteen seconds of fame, possessed an overwhelming air of desperation that could not be ignored. This is precisely the feeling I had when I ran into George Stanley after high school. He was the kind of man who was not satisfied by physical exhaustion from a hard day’s work of getting covered in grime. His gratification came with synthetic arrogance and polished trophies.
There were not many things to be famous for in Greenwood, Alabama, but the five-consecutive-year winner of the singing competition at the Gulf State Fair was certainly something to be noticed. George was as famous for the fact that he couldn't sing as he was for having taken home the first-place trophy year after year. "The best of the worst" they called him, and that was the perfect description to sum up the distressed sound that shook my nerves every time I'd hear it. George did not mind the attention, no matter how he got it, and strained his voice and swayed his hips every year to the kind of song found on a jukebox in some crusted out old bar. He'd always begin his performance with, "This is a song for my daddy," as if his daddy was some hero lost at war, and not what he really was, the owner of Big Will’s Slurp House.
I hadn’t intended to go by the fair, but at the time it seemed like a better idea than going home and packing up my room with my mom. George was standing on Stage B, next to Jimmy Riffle and his Gator Boys Road Show. I remember thinking that one of Jimmy Riffle’s alligators might escape its wire arena and attack George on stage, relieving the audience’s ears. But of course no such thing would happen, so I stood there and watched George sing until his eyes watered, either from tears or the strain of trying to make his words touch the audience in the same way he felt them. A ruffle of wind blew past the stage and into George’s shirt, puffing it out against the constraints of the flaps that were tucked into his jeans. The image of it all was quite tragically beautiful, and I, with a savior complex that often had me roaming the pound for some lost soul to take home, found the disaster of his performance irresistible.
When it was over, the crowd applauded and cheered just as they would have if George had been the best of the best. As he walked off stage, polishing his trophy, I walked up to him and told him how much his singing really did almost sound like Hank Williams himself, a comment I would have to regurgitate every holiday after we were married when George would bring the story up to his parents.
“My Georgy is surely better than Hank Williams,” his mother would say because she lived for the opportunity to challenge anything I said. Even if it meant lying. “Well I bet Hank didn’t have half the range George does.” Of course this was smoke up George’s ass, but I let George and his mother live in their lie as long as it meant I got out of cooking for the holidays, and having to watch Mrs. Stanley feed my five hours of work in the kitchen to our dog.
“He just looked so starved,” was her excuse. “The poor thing looked like he was about to pass out.”
“I’d rather not have a diabetic dog, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop feeding him.”
“One plate is not going to hurt him. Look,” she said pointing to Buster licking the creamed potatoes from her plate on the floor, “he likes your food better than I do. He might as well eat it to keep it from going to waste.” And so the cycle continued every holiday until I decided the best thing to do to save my sanity, and my dishes, was to eat dinner at George’s parents’ house.
The last time I saw George's family we had them over for dinner and the dog barked the entire time. Or was that his mother? The bottom of her heel had barely scuffed itself across the foyer before I regretted telling George we could have his parents over. His mother had the same glossed over look in her eyes that George did when we went to dinner or parties with my friends. A knowingness that he’d only be there momentarily, so there was no need to take anything in. To unpack the details and consume himself with thoughts other than where he was moving on to.
I did my best to stay in the kitchen and bang dishes and cabinets around in hopes that no one would suspect why I was really in there. I was one back-handed compliment away from sticking my head in the oven, letting both me and the pecan pie dry out to an unrecognizable crisp. At least then we’d both be saved from the torturous scrutiny of that night. But one can only run off to the kitchen so many times and return empty handed before being found out. Charlie managed to get out of dinner by studying at the library, and I wished I could have been with him learning who conquered what empire in the 1800s, instead of having my home invaded by his grandmother.
“I like how you don’t make your pie too moist,” his mother said, holding one pecan on the end of her fork as if waiting for either it or herself to decide what would happen next. “Harold has to have his food real dry. Too moist and he’s afraid his dentures will slip right out.”
“Real dry,” Mr. Stanley repeated pushing the pie around in his mouth. He licked up the gelled matter that fell on his shirt, and I looked to George and he shook his head and held his hand up to stop me. Despite wanting to ban Mrs. Stanley from my residence, I gave in to George’s plea to have his parents over when they started having renovations done. A process that was estimated at three months was taking twice as long, and meant that I had to play nice and pretend like I didn’t want to send Mrs. Stanley back to the mold that now infested her living room carpet after a tiler slipped through a weak spot on the roof. I had to play Lara Jean, Queen of being Mrs. Stanley’s punching bag. That final dinner seemed to encompass all the complications and misfortunes that were my marriage to George. No sanity or compassion there. A short ride on the way to somewhere else. Nothing about the meal felt final at the time. It was the same merry-go-round I’d been on for years, and expected to continue on until either I or George’s mother died. But as fate would have it, divorce came first, and there were no more standoffs between Mrs. Stanley and me. In itself, a relief that was worth the trouble it took to get.
So it was a surprise to me a few years later when I spotted her coming out of Kitchen on George, looking as Miranda Priestly and unapproachable as ever, partially hidden by the plaid wool cape I’d given her several years prior. There are certain meetings in one’s life that ought to be planned. Proper time to say whatever grievances there may still be, and properly address everything and mail problems back to the past. This was one of those meetings.
She turned in my direction just as the wind began to shake the limbs overhead, causing a few leaves to skip free and land on the shoulders of her wrap. She had never looked this beautiful when George and I were married. Her appearance, although lacking any sign of fragility, was lighter than before. I watched the movement of her eyes and the recognition they found in tracing my body from limb to limb. I gave a slight wave, unable to decide what else to do. The nod of her head and the tightening of her cape around her gave me the confirmation that I shouldn’t approach. She maneuvered from her spot in front of the restaurant to the pavement across the street in two long movements, both easy and quiet in stride. I couldn’t decide if I was hurt, disappointed, or relieved that our reunion had been cut down to casual mannerisms of people who just happened to pass one another on the street. I followed Mrs. Stanley with my gaze as she traipsed through the park and down toward Magnolia Cemetery. I wanted to ask her where she was going that was more important than stopping to make small talk with me, pretending to take an interest in what I had been up to lately—and why she’d hated me so fiercely all those years George and I were together. I replayed the questions in my mind one after the other while I waited for Jenny and Oscar to meet me at the restaurant, mouthing silent words of how I might reply to her answers. Of course I wouldn’t get such satisfaction of speaking to her, we were much too foreign to each other for that now, but I hoped in some small way it might cement all the reasons why George and I weren’t married.
I came to the decision to leave George the same morning Charlie saw me spitting in his dad’s coffee. He hadn’t said a word in response, just sat at the table with his bowl of cereal, crunching bites and hitting the spoon against the bowl. Not a day in my life had I voluntarily drank coffee, but that morning I made myself swallow the whole cup just to show Charlie how sorry I was. The burning and blistering of it on the way down I considered my punishment for letting Charlie see how much I had grown to dislike his father.
I placed the empty mug in the dishwasher, amongst the unwashed dishes from last night’s salty beef stew, and sat across the table from Charlie and pretended to read through the papers he left for me to sign on the table. “Charlie—,” I began.
“You don’t drink coffee,” he said, cutting me off and pushing his chair back from the table.
“No, I don’t,” I said. There’s a look children give when they know more about what their parents are up to than they should. A look I’d made more times than I can count, and that I saw then staring back at me, challenging me to say anything other than the truth.
Our eyes stayed strained on each other momentarily, Charlie because he wanted to show he wasn't going to let this go, and me because I'd forgotten my second pair of eyes on my night table, before Charlie strutted over to me, looking too much like his father, and gave me a tight squeeze around my shoulders. “Just promise you won’t spit in my orange juice when you’re mad at me,” he said, and I could tell by his kiss on the top of my head that he was partially joking.
“Scout’s honor,” I assured. I handed the signed papers off to him and waved him out the door. Decades ago my mother had taught me how to love a husband, and how to lose love for him. Something I’d thought impossible for lovers who have what my parents had. Who have what I momentarily had. For years I’d cursed my mother, not understanding her need to leave behind the life she formed with my father for a life I believed could only pale in comparison. But sitting at the table, I considered what I would be like without George. It seemed like that world—the world without him—was the most bearable. A lot less like an evening watching him at the fair, and a lot more like the feeling of relief I had when Jenny’s brother stopped crying at night.
While Charlie sat at the kitchen table tackling his algebra homework, I waited on the porch for George to come home. Life seemed to be full of unnecessarily complicated equations those days, so the least I could do was help detract from them. That all started with leaving George. I had rehearsed the whole thing all day. George this isn’t...Well, you know the thing is, Charlie knows...I can’t think of a better way to say this… No matter how I tried to say it, the words weren’t enough to say how I really felt. And that feeling was a little like how the pet owners felt once they brought their newly adopted animals home. From a distance it’s pitiful but endearing, and you have an urge to bring it home because you believe that will be the answer to all its problems, and possibly yours. But eventually the infatuation wears off because you realize the thing shits and pees like every other animal out there. Patience and love eventually turn to tolerance and disdain and before you know it, you’re hoping for a full refund. Damn the humanitarian in you, you want peace. I hated myself for how I felt, and most certainly for my part in things. But I had decided to finally be an adult about the situation. To say that our relationship was over, and it was all my fault for trying to make something out of an emotion that was barely there. For trying to sustain love where there was very little.
“You’ve got to do what’s right for you,” Jenny had said. “You’re miserable and I can tell.” And the truth was I was miserable, and found myself creeping more and more into old habits of escaping to Jenny’s house when George and I were on bad terms. It went from a night on Jenny and Oscar’s couch attempting to distract myself from my marriage through Meg Ryan movies, to days at a time. It wasn’t fair to George or Charlie to be a part-time wife and mother. I knew from experience the damage such an experience could create, and I wouldn’t want to be the woman that didn’t want to invest wholeheartedly in the family she had. I didn’t want to be my mother.
George walked up the driveway dressed in a white button-down, still creased from the packing, and a pair of Oxford blue pants I didn’t recognize. He stopped at the steps and sat next to me, looking over at me as I avoided his eyes.
“I’m not exactly sure what to say,” I said eventually. “It’s just that—”
“I know,” he interrupted.
“You know what?”
“You think a man doesn’t know when his wife doesn’t want to be with him? You haven’t exactly been vague about it.” With this he took my hand and held it in his. “Of course I’ve known. I just planned on staying.” He kissed my hand swiftly and let it go as if the action set his lips ablaze, and let it fall between us.
“I thought about staying once too,” I said. “But then I thought about Charlie, and I thought about myself, and I just couldn’t see myself staying much after that.” With this I looked at him and waited for George to respond but nothing came. Possibly he had nothing to say, or possibly he had done what I had done long ago—give up on the idea of him and me. “Why had you planned on staying?” I asked. Curiosity struck me because George had never been one to do things he didn’t want to. Whether that be starting a load of laundry or putting the trash out on the curb on Wednesday nights. George Stanley was nobody’s helper. He was never really anyone’s husband either.
“Because that was all I could think to do,” he said matter-of-factly. All the time I thought I was the one dealing with loss of love. The one settling and staying put. But I too had been settled for.
“Wish we would have had this discussion sooner,” I said, rising to disappear into the house. “Might have saved us a lot of time.”
“Might have saved us a lot of years,” he replied. The sting of these words was truer than I wanted them to be. It wasn’t just the past few months, or the last year that either of us felt distant from one another and suffocated in this marriage.
Not one sound came from Charlie’s room that night. I waited with the same ghostly fear I felt in Jenny’s bedroom when her brother cried at night—and heard nothing, grateful I would never have to explain to Charlie years later how although his father and I had no longer loved each other, we stayed married. I walked into Charlie’s room long after I knew he’d be asleep. I remembered waiting in my room the night my parents told me they’d be separating. With Jenny’s nightmare in mind, I had sat at the edge of my bed waiting for someone to come. Waiting for my mom or dad to say I was staying with them. For someone to pack their bags, to scream and shout and call vile names that could never be taken back. To say I should be with one over the other, and practically force me to choose a side. To splinter my own home and myself in the process. But no one came. Not to say goodnight or otherwise. And I had the sickening feeling of wishing for it all to happen. To be wakened in the night. But no screaming came. No packing of bags and slamming of doors. No harm physically done.
I half expected George to be standing in Charlie’s room when I walked in, but there was only Charlie and I under the moonlight that shone in the room. I felt relief that I would not have to be a part of the scene I pictured happening to me when I was Charlie’s age, and disappointed at the same time that there was no battle to fight.