Fiction

Reflection, acrylic and pencil pastel, by Susan Pollet

The Unraveling

He was out of her life. Finally. They should have done this sooner.
 
She supposed she had been as much at fault as he.
 
“More,” he would say. “More at fault.”

 

Maybe so. Maybe she had been the problem all along. She hadn’t been honest from the outset. So, there were consequences.

“The marriage—an abysmal failure from the start,” she told the therapist, a sixtyish man with thinning hair and red-rimmed eyes. She had agreed to the sessions at her husband’s request. “He’s an expert in marriage and divorce. Don’t you think we should put in the effort?” In the meantime, there would be the separation. “A time out,” the therapist told them.

“You stay in the house,” her husband offered. “I’ll rent a place. We’ll sort it out later.”

It was not later yet. It was the first day of their trial parting. He’d taken his stuff from the bathroom, most of his summer clothes, a frying pan, a few pieces of flatware, and some paper plates. “I won’t be cooking much,” he said, “I can assure you of that.”

She closed the door to his closet when he left. That was yesterday. She’d eaten half a bowl of granola and fallen into a deep sleep.

She awoke to the memory of a pink house. Their first. The one before the one in which she now lay in bed. What an unlovely color that house had been. Why, she shook her head on the pillow, would anyone paint a sweet little home such a hideous shade? They’d bought it anyway, knowing there was no money to repaint— at least not right away. They’d raised a toast to their purchase… at the very moment of which, she knew that it was doomed. “It” being the house and the marriage.

On this morning of her freedom, she silently reminisced. His first affair. She hadn’t cared as much as she’d pretended—even at the time. A ridiculous revenge, she thought, for my harmless diversions.

The cell phone on the nightstand buzzed. His name flashed on the screen.

“The pink house. We should have changed the color.” She wasn’t surprised. This much they shared. “Simultaneous thinking,” she called it.

“We should have painted the house,” he repeated.

“Wouldn’t have helped.”

“Might have,” he countered. “Did you ever…”

“What?” There was an edge to her voice.

“You know. Did you?”

“I don’t think so.”  She softened. “I’ve told you hundreds of times—yesterday even. I don’t think so.”

“And now?”

“Now what?”

“Could you love me now that we’re apart?”

“Childish,” she sighed.

He imitated her sigh. “We could pretend—that what happened happened before we met.”

She shut down the cell phone.

There was no before—at least where she was concerned. Before she met him, during their marriage—it was all the same. She’d done what she had done as a lark, always. But not to hurt him.

She turned over, her head facing the window where bright sunlight caught miniature dust particles in a shaft. From the start, she’d done it for the fun of it. Because she could.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she’d told her first diversion more than thirty years ago. She was twenty-three at the time, a summer intern at a real estate office.  A more seasoned agent—her designated mentor—was driving. They were on their way to the first appointment.  Her first, not his. Young, blonde, and wearing a wedding band. She was to “learn the ropes” from him.

They were parked in front of a house, waiting for the prospective customer to show up.

There had been a smattering of small talk.  And then she said, “I know what you’re thinking.”

“What am I thinking?”

“That you’re sitting beside an attractive young woman and that, when your wife asks how your day went, you won’t tell her about me.”

He blushed a deep red from his neck to his forehead. This despite his beautiful summer tan.

“Don’t bother answering. Oh, and it’s okay.”  She shook her head—the dark curls bounced. “I won’t tell.”

And she hadn’t. Not that she’d had much chance. There had been the company barbeque to which he’d been accompanied by his wife. She had ignored them both.

From her perspective, it had been a harmless flirtation. Sometimes he twirled the ring on his left hand while they stopped for lunch before or after the walk-through of a home for sale.

“Nice exterior,” he would say.

“You don’t mean that,” she would answer. “You’re thinking, nice legs.”

Had he really thought the attraction was a precursor to something more? “We have the rest of the afternoon. How about we get a motel room?”

She declined. “I respect your wife too much.  Anyway, I quit this morning. I never wanted to be a real estate agent.”

Her first real job—a local radio station in town. She would take over a long-running show called Conversations. Her boss, slack-faced and rumpled, was perpetually harried. “You got a college degree?  Too bad this isn’t TV,” he said, appraising her head to toe. “You pick the guests,” he grunted. “Stick with the locals. Send ’em a couple questions in advance. Wing the rest when you’re on the air.”

The first three on her list were men—a former race car driver whose name was plastered across the gas station on the highway. At that time in his late forties, he’d given up car racing ten years earlier. He told her about the first car he built when he was nine years old. “Wagon wheels and a cardboard box.”

Her next set of questions caught him off guard. “Did you ever have doubts about racing during your career? How did your parents feel about your driving?” She smiled innocently, but she’d done her homework. Drugs, hospitalizations, rehabilitation, marriage, divorce.  A second marriage. Some of the listeners probably knew all this—but not from the horses’ mouth so to speak. When, finally the show ended, he thanked her “for forcing me to tell it all. A relief,” he said. “Coffee?”

It was so easy. She barely had to do anything to make it happen. They would raise an eyebrow or an upper lip. Cock their heads to the right or left. She could always see it coming. Were they all that unhappy with their wives?

There was the doctor she’d gone to for an ache in her gut. “I’ve thought about your pain quite a bit. Maybe we could discuss it over dinner this evening.”  No wedding ring, but she’d seen a photo of a woman and child on the shelf behind his desk.

The driver of a tractor trailer. A photographer specializing in portraits. A firefighter. Each of them, all of them, willing to take the chance. For what?  And why?

And then came the husband—the one she’d vowed to love till death. He was a young attorney representing the owners of a condominium undergoing renovations. He wore his shirt with the collar open. He had muscular arms, a full head of dark hair, dark eyes, and a gold wedding band.

He had turned her down outright when she’d called to invite him to the station for an interview. A casual drop-in at his office and a semi-lie about an urgent question regarding the condo got her past the receptionist and into his sparsely but tastefully decorated office. It was early afternoon when she arrived. “My answer is still no—although, now that I’ve met the interviewer, I may be having second thoughts.”

She smiled her brightest smile. “It’s personal,” she said. “I’m considering moving there. How can it hurt to explain the issues? Have the owners gotten more than one estimate? And from whom?” She was trying her best—sweetly cajoling when she noticed the ring.

“Belonged to my dad,” he said when he caught her glance. “He’s been gone for years already. He held out his hand so she could study the ring more closely.

“You thought I was married,” he grinned. His teeth were extremely white. “Haven’t had lunch yet. Want to come along? You can continue to harass me while we eat.”  Which she did, incessantly until he relented and allowed her to question him live on the show.

Why she had joined her life to his, she never quite understood. Maybe it was simply boredom. No unattached male had ever proposed marriage, offering her a lifetime of love, until this lawyer who wore his father’s wedding ring.

She made her way now to the bright white kitchen in the house they had shared until yesterday. Absent- mindedly, she stirred milk into her coffee and remembered.

“Are you in love with him?” her husband of barely eleven months had asked early on when he saw her in a parked car, a man in the passenger seat.”  This was the third such sighting—twice with this man, once, much earlier with someone different.

“I offered to give him a lift home. He’ll be on the show in a few weeks.”

“What’s the angle?” her husband had asked.

“He’s an environmental engineer,” she’d answered. That much, at least, was the truth.

“Oh,” her husband nodded. “I figured there was an explanation. No reason to be jealous when there’s nothing to be jealous about.”

And there really was nothing. “Too much respect for your wife…” she told the engineer.

With the pregnancies, she temporarily ceased her excursions—resuming briefly between and following the births of their children.

“It was a challenge,” she told the therapist. “I just wanted to see if I was still attractive enough.”

“And were you?”

“Apparently so.”

Her husband agreed. “She was more beautiful than ever. She let her hair grow long—like it is now,” he gestured.  And we hired the nanny.” He colored at the memory.

“Young and willing.” Sarcasm in her response.

“True,” he acknowledged. “I’d come home sometimes in the middle of the day and find a note from her. He pointed his hand, palm up, at his wife. “She was never there.”

“So, you took advantage of the time?” —the therapist asked.

“He took advantage of the nanny,” snapped his wife.

“And you continued with your diversions,” her husband shot back. “Did you think I wouldn’t resent it? So I cheated. Isn’t that what you were doing?”

The therapist yawned behind his hand. “So you come to me thirty years after the nanny. What exactly do you want? Is there any love between you?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“No,” she said.

 

Toward late morning on the day after the official separation, she brought the mirror to her face and noted the fan of thin lines at her eyes and lips, hair streaked with gray. Still, she assessed herself, quite good for a woman of a certain age.

She showered and dressed in a black summer suit. The old urge bubbled up in her stomach.

She applied a pale lipstick, a touch of blush, mascara. “If I am seen having breakfast with someone, so be it.”

She entered the cafe with confidence.  A brief survey of the room revealed a prospect. The nearly bald man wore an expensive suit and watch. He was seated alone, a newspaper on the table in front of him, a glass in his left hand.  She could see the thick band on the third finger.

She walked past his booth. “Well, hello,” she said.

“Hello to you too,” came the answer and a smile. “Do we know one another?”

“Not yet,” she answered. “May I sit here?”

He was intrigued. Of course, he was intrigued. How many times had she used this ploy? They loved it when she approached them with such confidence.

“Your name?” She always asked, and they always answered.

He responded immediately. “And yours?”

As ever, she gave a full but false answer.

“Insurance,” he told her.

“Free-lance writer,” she told him—untrue but plausible.

“Live around here?”  She asked him.

“Next state over. You?”

“Not far.”

“Ahh… nice town,” he noted.  “Know anyplace around here where a person can relax for an hour or two?”

“Park nearby. Walking paths. Benches.”

“Perfect.  If you’re not busy, would you care to take a walk?”

And then the rest—a conversation about nothing of significance. He would ask if she was married.  She would say, “Separated.”

“And you?” As though she didn’t already know.

“Married.” He would sigh. “Wife’s been ill —a long time.”

A familiar complaint. Sick wife, forlorn husband in need of compassion. Still young enough to eke some joy out of life. “Are you free for a drink tonight?”

“Love to.”

And so it would go. One or two meetings. A little more information about the sick wife. Or the angry wife. Or the wife who’d let herself go to pot. And then the suggestion—”Your place? Or maybe the hotel where I’m staying— is that too bold?”

“I respect your wife too much,” she would answer.

The end—barely before it had begun. He would be sad and sullen. She would leave and move on.

“I never slept with them. Never got close,” she was emphatic when they met with the therapist a second time. “It was just a game. It meant nothing.” Then again, her husband meant almost nothing.

“Okay, alright,” her husband said. “I don’t really understand—never did get this game of yours, but I shouldn’t have slept with the nanny or anybody else.”

The therapist, clasping and unclasping his fingers, did not appear to be invested in their problems.  “Playing with fire,” he said. “One day a furious wife will come after you. She won’t care that you respect her. She won’t know.”

“And you,” he turned to her husband. He looked as though he was about to speak but changed his mind. Instead, he addressed them both without looking at them. “No need to return here. It’s time for you to divide your assets and go your separate ways.” He stood and walked to the door, opening it to usher them out.

They didn’t tell their children—both of whom were married with children of their own—until they’d seen the lawyer. “No fault.  No one’s fault. Faultless.”

She continued living in the house. He took a few pieces of furniture, some photographs and two paintings of the ocean.

Funny how easy it was to sever completely. A couple of signatures and the divorce was final. They shook hands with the lawyer and that was it.

“Coffee?” he asked. She nodded her head.  A parting gesture. At the Starbucks down the block. He kissed her on the cheek before leaving. “See you,” he said.

She didn’t answer.

There were rumors. Someone had seen him at the theatre with a woman. “Giving up the lease on his apartment. Moving in with her—young, tall, thin. Wears rimless glasses. Planning a wedding.”

Occasionally she ventured out, always assessing her reflection. “Spectacular,” she would think, adjusting her shoulders, tightening her stomach muscles. She joined a gym. Once in a while she found an older man in some restaurant, seated at a booth near the back. She’d slide in opposite. “May I join you?”

“Wife’s on vacation with lady friends.”

“Lonesome?”

“Yes?”

“Up for a little adventure?”

So, it went. Every few weeks. Less thrilling than it used to be. “Slowing down,” she thought. “Off my game.”

 

Then, one day there was her ex, at a diner on a two-lane highway with a faded sign posted on stilts out front. She could see his platinum wedding band. “Well, well, and what are you doing here?” She settled herself across from him.

“Waiting for a client. And you? Never mind, I know what you’re doing.”

“No really. I’m here for breakfast.”

“You look good, I’ll have to admit,” she said.  New shirt? More casual than you used to wear when we were married. And your hair? Are you coloring it? Yes, you’re coloring it.” She stood up and reached across the table to touch his hair, knowing of course that he would recognize the familiar fragrance she wore.

“Looking well yourself,” he countered gently moving her hand away from his hair. Did he hold her wrist a bit longer than necessary?

The waitress brought his order—black coffee and a corn muffin— and took hers.

“My client will be here shortly.”

“I’ll leave when he comes.”

“She,” he corrected.

“Oh.” She smiled. “How is married life?”

He winked—something she had never seen him do before. He was coming on to her, wasn’t he? How odd, she thought, to find this exciting.

She: “Shall we meet somewhere later for old times?”

He: “Alright.” He named a place—a motel not a mile from the diner.

At precisely the hour, she parked her car in the lot. He was already there. “Shall I go in first?” she asked. “Or would you prefer to get the room?”

He laughed, the sound careening through the air. He laughed until tears ran down his cheeks. “I appreciate the offer,” he said. “But I respect my wife too much.”

 

Author's Comment

I had no idea where this piece was headed when I sat down to write. It is always a surprise and great fun when the characters take over and the writer becomes the conduit.

 

What the Country Wrought
by Annis Cassells
What the Country Wrought explores and connects the meanings, nuances, and feel of “country.” In this compelling collection you will discover poems of rural roots, legacies, and the mainstays of home, family, and personal identity. Poems that address societal issues and truths America as a whole has wrought. Poems that revel in the ideals and spirit of building a country: perseverance, independence, audacity, and sisterhood. From motorcycling adventures to women’s suffrage, from the thunder of injustice to compassion and peace, Annis Cassells writes with an eye for description, an ear for musicality, and a heart for us all.
“Ranging from lyric to prose, haibun to ekphrastic, the poems shimmer with life. As we give ourselves over to the language and images of this luminous book, we may find that for us, too, ‘grief slides over,’ and that whatever else it is, ‘the world is wondrous.’” Catherine Abbey Hodges, author of In a Rind of Light   “With a mastery of storytelling through relatable poetry, Annis Cassells’s poems exude strength and self-compassion as she learns ‘to extend grace…even to myself’.” Ronald Montgomery, author of When Hearts Surrender   “Annis Cassells honors family roots, and tackles racial and gender injustices in this shimmering, honest poetry collection.” Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, co-founder, Gyroscope Review; author of How We Learned to Shut Our Own Mouths
Annis Cassells is a poet, teacher, and coach. What the Country Wrought is her second full-length collection. She longingly recalls her adventures traversing the USA on Big Red, her trusty motorcycle. To compensate, she is often over-scheduled for writing and poetry workshops in far-away places over Zoom. Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org, and wherever books are sold.

Bios

Anna Gotlieb is the author of four books: Between the LinesIn Other Words, Full Circle, and Pinkey's. The first two books are collections of first-person vignettes. Full Circle and Pinkey' s are novels. Her short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared in the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Women of Words, and other online and print publications.  Anna is known as Annie to her husband and children. She is Granny Annie to her grandchildren.
Although Susan Pollet has been creating arts and crafts since she was a small child, she was a public interest lawyer for forty years, primarily in family court, the president and an officer of women’s bar associations, and remains an advocate for the rights of women, children and families. Her artwork reflects her interests in domestic themes. Susan uses various forms of media as art expression, including collage, paints, and drawing instruments of all sorts and on all surfaces. Her artwork has appeared in numerous publications and in group shows. She is also a published author of seven novels for adults, two poetry books, and three children’s books. She created the covers for the adult books, and the illustrations and covers for the children’s books.

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