A Boilerplate Rendering Ch. 03byTheUnoriginalist©
Disney World was a blast. The girls loved every moment of it.
One of the greatest and more admirable things about children is that, as long as there's more than one of them around, they can make waiting in line into an epic adventure. I did take lots of pictures, and I let the girls call home every night to tell mom all about their big vacation. Not in a gloating way, mind you. The fact that their squealing joy was compounding her misery was just a welcome bonus.
Aside from taking those calls, I honestly don't know what Karen did with her time that week. What I do know is that she barely entered into my mind. And there aren't any words available, in any language ever made, to say quite what a relief that was for me. Suddenly I was able to sleep at night, and taste the food I was eating during the day. It was a lucid and powerful feeling...honestly, it was like being on powerful psychotropic drugs.
The last collection of months had been a terrible journey, but I thought that I was finally over her to the point where she could no longer hurt me.
There were some obvious flaws in this logic, not the least of which was that I still had no interest in sex. Or maybe that's not exactly the right way to say it. There were lots of beautiful women walking around in the sunshine, and I could recognize that they were attractive and even admire it from afar, but I couldn't see MYSELF as a sexual being. Whatever successes my actions have provided me with, they had done nothing to repair the shattered ego that came from learning of my wife's affair. I had met Karen in my prime. I'd been young, fit, with a full head of hair, and from the moment we met I gave her my all. That hadn't been enough for her. If my best...my absolute peak best...wasn't enough for someone who had already invested that much of themselves in me, then what could I possibly have to offer anybody else?
It's a stupid kind of logic, but being betrayed by a spouse is like falling out of a tree. The more you love them to start with, the further you have to fall, and the more disoriented you are by the collision with ground. If you ever meet someone who tells you they were able to just get back up and dust off their pants and move along, then you know that someone didn't have all that far to fall in the first place.
So no, I wasn't feeling sexual and I wasn't fully healed. But that was okay. I was happy with the progress that I had made, and the idea of sex was so wrapped up in anxiety and sadness now that I didn't particularly want my drive to come back.
Long story short, we had a great week and then we went home.
Karen seemed kind of sad and withdrawn when we got back, although she made a point of asking the girls all about their trip and smiling and laughing with them a lot. She did continue to see Carl, but she had a different and less outgoing quality to her now. She wasn't as energetic, or cheerful as she had been the last few months. As for me, I guess you could say that I noticed it, but that I didn't waste any of my time thinking about what it meant. I was glad that she understood at last where we stood, and seems to be trying to find a way to live with that rather than change the status quo.
I did, however, feel a bit of tension climb the ladder of my spine three weeks after we got back, when Karen tentatively asked if I was interested in attending the Bailey's next cookout.
"I didn't know they were having one," I responded slowly.
"They called a couple of days ago to invite us," Karen explained. She threw me a nervous glance. "If you don't want to go..."
I frowned, remembering what it happened the last time we went to one of these things, but then pushed that aside. "The girls like it," I told her, and we both understood that that in and of itself was an answer.
"I won't go anywhere near him," she assured me.
"Don't waste either of our time making those kinds of promises. They don't mean anything."
But I wasn't above hoping that maybe she meant it, this time.
She tossed, scooted around a bit, and scrunched up her pillow.
A minute later she turned, scratching her shoulder irritably.
Then she sighed and tossed again.
I just lay there in the dark, listening.
This was a game I'd been playing for a long time, now. I even looked forward to the silent calm that night brought with it.
It was brand new to her, and I don't doubt she hated it.
Tom Bailey must be doing alright at work. They had redone their kitchen and replaced all their deck furniture.
The sun was just beginning to get low, I had just started to enjoy my alcohol buzz, and it had been a pretty good time all things considered when she leaned over and whispered in my ear.
"Please stop looking at him."
I grunted, turned my attention back to the couple we were sitting with, but didn't otherwise respond. And I couldn't help glancing in his direction several more times just to see if it was still happening.
It was still happening.
I suppose this constant distraction made for pretty poor conversation, because a few minutes later the other couple excused themselves and left.
"Honestly, John," Karen begged. "You've got to stop looking at him. Forget that he's even here."
"HE'S looking at ME," I snapped. "And it's pissing me off."
In fact, he was more staring than looking, and had been through most of the night. His expression alternated between an icey grimace and a mocking sneer. Mostly, he looked like a petulant child.
He'd also been drinking way too much, which I thought was a bad combination. It made him worth keeping an eye on.
"He's just jealous," Karen pouted, glancing around to make sure nobody could hear us. "And if you ask me, he's being incredibly childish about it. But there's nothing we can do right now, so please just ignore him. It's the best way."
"You try and ignore someone staring holes in the back of your head all night long. It's almost as hard as ignoring somebody who's stabbing you in the back."
She folded her arms over her chest, jiggling her foot in an aggitated fashion. "Well, I wish he would just go home. He's making an ass of himself."
"Maybe you should take him home, then. I'm sure that's what he wants."
Her face turned red and she opened her mouth, then she shut it and looked away. "You know," she said wistfully, "for a little while I actually thought we were having a good time."
"For a little while, I agreed with you. That was before someone's eyeballs started drilling into the back of my skull. How does he possibly think people aren't going to catch on, if he just sits there and glares at me for three hours?"
She finished her drink a little too quickly. "He's being childish," she repeated, as if that were an answer in an of itself.
So we sat there a while, both of our moods ruined, and I found myself growing oddly contemplative.
"How did it start?" I asked, keeping my voice neutral.
She just took a deep breath and continued to not look at me.
"Honestly, Karen. That's one thing I never got out of the tapes and recordings, was how the whole thing got started in the first place."
"I really don't want to talk about that. Certainly not here."
"Did he...I mean, was there a seduction? Or..."
"If you're trying to get me to say that I wish it had never happened," she snapped, "you don't have to fish for it. I wish it had never happened. I wish for it every goddamn day."
"I'm not fishing for anything, and I'm not trying to start an argument. I just..." I shook my head. "I just don't understand how you could do that to me," I admitted. There wasn't any great amount of pain or anger in my voice. It was a stone cold fact. "I don't understand how you could do it to US, you know? To US, Karen. The girls. Do you know that I would've died for you? No exaggeration," I shook my head, "I would've died." I still have things in my life worth dying for. They're just nothing to do with you.
"Goddamn you!" she put her hand to her mouth as she fought the urge to cry. "Don't you dare do this to me now."
I shrugged. "Alright. I'm sorry." I examined the sunset. "It just hits me at weird times, you know?"
"You shouldn't feel like you have to tell me you're sorry for that."
"Maybe not. But I do." I looked around. "He's gone. Do you think he went home?"
"I don't want to think about him right now."
I examined my beer bottle. The strangest compulsion came over me. "Well...do you want to dance?"
She didn't answer, probably thinking I was being sarcastic.
"Come on," I goaded. "What do you say? I'm not any better than I was before, but I can't possibly be any worse."
Now she was looking at me. "I have a hard time believing that you would ever want to dance with me."
A pause. "I wouldn't want to dance with me."
Score one for you, then. "Look, you don't have to understand. I don't have to understand it, either. Let's just dance."
A tentative smile crossed her face. "But there isn't even any music..."
Two minutes later we were standing in the lawn near the corner of the deck, swaying to non-existent songs that played in our heads. We didn't hold each other close, or put our heads on each other's shoulders, or anything like that. We just sort of held hands and swayed. Some of the other couples glanced at us from time to time, probably assuming they were witnessing a moment of tender intimacy. It wasn't. It was more like the calling of a truce.
"You know," she said to some point over my shoulder, "this is the most physical contact we've had since..." She dipped her head and didn't finish the thought.
Her lips moved a little bit, and I could almost see and internal conversation playing out in her head. I waited, knowing that once she had it figured out she'd invite me in.
"I want to be on your side," she finally said, looking up at me with sad eyes. "I want to be on the side that's focused on making this easiest for the girls."
"You are on that side. You have been all along."
She scoffed. "Only when it suited me. Or when you tricked me into it."
Fair enough. "There are some rules to being on this side that I don't think you'll like."
"I don't have to like them. Tell me, and I'll do you proud."
"It's just the one, really. And it's this: if you ever, EVER do anything to try to take them away from me, I'll kill you. No hesitation, no guilt, no more empathy than ending a dog. I will take your life for that."
I kept dancing. I hadn't said it with menace, or with any effort to intimidate.
It was just another stone cold fact.
To her credit she didn't tense or flinch away, or anything like that. "That's how I know you're a good father," she said quietly.
That night I was thirsty, and stepped out into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Her cell phone was vibrating on the counter, and the screen was lit up. I glanced at it.
Seventeen missed calls, all from tonight. All from after the party.
Saturday morning is a lonely time to be at the grocery store. There was almost nobody there, and almost everyone who was there was a man past the age of 40.
The old lady behind the counter noticed me glancing around, or perhaps she was just chatty. "We call it D-Day," she explained with a smile. "Saturday mornings, all the divorced dads come out to do their shopping." She leaned forward conspiratorially, her matronly figure pressing against the scanner. "I think it's because there aren't any happy couples around to make them feel lonely, Saturday mornings. The happy people are all at home, being a family."
I just stared at her, not reacting. After a moment, she stood up straight, interpreting that as a sign that she'd misstepped.
"I'm sorry," she stammered, hurrying to finish the bagging. "I saw the ring on your finger, and I just assumed..."
Karen must have meant what she said, because the next few weeks ran very smoothly. At home she was all smiles, and we actually worked pretty well as a family unit. For the most part, her time away was scheduled to minimize the impact on the girls. And maybe...just maybe...she was trying to lessen the impact on me, as well.
Still, I found that I'd become tired of just sitting around the house all the time, so I started doing more "out and about" stuff with the girls during Karen's away time. Before the summer was out we had gone on two other short vacations and visited several fun attractions within sixty miles of the house. I'd also replaced my sedan with a newer, larger van...a family unit not totally dissimilar to the one Karen had been so quick to trade off...and bought a nice expanding camper.
Karen weathered these motherless journeys stoically, although I could see that it was hurting her some to miss out on precious memories. She didn't complain, even as the bags started to show under her eyes and her smile started to look sadder and sadder. She had taken to taking things in order to help her sleep at night, although I didn't see that they made much difference.
What she wasn't totally silent about was the impact that this adventuring was having on our finances.
"I know you feel like it's justified, John," she insisted one night over a pile of bills and statements, "and I'm fully aware that I'm not in a spot to lecture you. But these are all nonessentials, and they're bleeding us dry. You've way outspent our income level, here, and we are up to our eyeballs in fresh debt. If you don't curb it, and fast, we are never going to be able to retire."
Still with the 'we' statements, I see. "Who wants to retire?" I snorted. "Look, we have the trust funds from my parent's estate to cover college and to help the girls get started out in the world, and your retirement is a long ways away. I don't really intend to ever quit working. I'm not sure what I would do with myself if I had years and years to just sit around the house, with nothing to do." I chuckled drily. "I'd probably do something dumb, like take up drinking."
She bit her lip, setting down the statements and bills. "There was a time when you talked about us selling the house and getting a mobile home, setting off across country," she noted. "Having an adventure that was just for us." I gave a short derisive laugh, and she looked away. "I suppose all of that is gone now, though, isn't it?"
"You couldn't possibly have thought I would still want to do that with you."
She gave me that same, sad smile. "I didn't do very much thinking it all for a very long time. I just acted, and never considered what my actions were doing to my life."
Well, what was I going to say to that? "Oh." Then I decided to breach the inevitable. "You know, at some point we probably should sit down and figure out how old the girls have to be before it's safe for us to get the divorce." Her eyes shot wide and her face paled, but I ignored it. It's not like she hadn't known it was coming. This was never going to be a permanent arrangement. "I was thinking a little after they go to college might be safe. That way they'll be distract-"
But she was gone, having fled the room. The chair she'd occupied lay on its back, and the papers were scattered wildly across the floor.
I gathered them together and started trying to put them back in the appropriate piles.
There were a few days of silence after that, and then it went back to normal. In fact, it stayed "normal" for some number of weeks after that, and I began to think that maybe we'd finally found a system that worked for us. There wasn't really any need to schedule the divorce, anyway. It was years away.
The winter was slow in coming. The shifting weather patterns left October with dewy humidity in place of the usual dry chill and dusting snow.
I suppose I'd noticed that Karen had been around the house more and more often in the preceding weeks, and that she'd taken to leaving her cell phone on the charger when we went out as a family, but I hadn't really thought anything about what that might mean. I was basically just operating under the assumption that it was going to be business as usual from here on out, so I was completely unprepared when she sat down on the couch across from me one night, looking stressed and tired, and told me that it was over.
"I just can't do it anymore, John," she explained. "It's too stressful, and I'm so ashamed of myself all the time. I can't live like this anymore."
I held my breath, but waited.
She folded her hands and looked down at them. "Do you know, sometimes when I'm all alone...or when I'm in the shower...I find myself just crying and crying for no reason? And I try to regain control, but I just can't. No matter what I do, I cry and I cry and I can't ever stop." She shook her head bitterly. "It's my own fault. I know that. But..." a sigh, and then her voice hardened. "You really had me going for a while, if that helps...thinking that I had to play along in order to save myself. Thinking that time would just somehow solve every problem I'd created, if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Hell, for a little while I even thought I was lucky." She shook her head again, faster and in far shorter jerks. "Anyway, it's over now. You can do what you want, but I'm telling you here and now that it's over."
I was rigid, motionless but for my eyes. I wasn't remotely prepared for this. "I told you what would happen if you tried to take them away from me," I warned.
"Take them away? What are you tal-" she stopped, frowned. "No! No, not you and me! I don't mean US, John. I mean CARL. Or, me and Carl. It's...it's over. Forever. I told him three days ago, and it's just taken me this long to get the nerve up to tell you."
"Unacceptable," I snapped. Even to me, it sounded neutered and useless.
She noticed, too, and gave a tired sounding laugh. "Too bad, because it's really over. And I can't tell you how glad I am to say it."
"Think about what you're doing here, Karen. Think about what is going to happen if you do this."
She looked me over, unafraid. "You know," she said wistfully, "I really was scared of you for a very long time. You said those terrible things, and you knew everything...knew all those things I thought you couldn't possibly know. And you were stern about it, so...serious. So angry. You just pulled the wool right over my eyes.
"I actually believed that every threat you delivered must really be the truth. That heeding your words was the only possible way for me to get through without loss." Her forehead wrinkled, and something like mild surprise entered into her voice. "Was I really that blind? Or were you just that good a magician? Because I swear I saw a snarling dog baring its teeth at me, and I heard the most sinister sounds I've ever heard in my life. I just...responded to those sounds. Reacted to them, like a mindless thing. I never even noticed that the beast in front of me was backed up into a corner. I never noticed that you were the one in danger the whole time."
She wiped at her eyes. "I'm so sorry I did that to you. I'm sorry I cornered you, wounded and afraid, and left you with nothing but the sound of your own snarl to fight back with. You'll never know how sorry I am for that, because you would never be cruel enough to do that to someone else. You would never do the things that I've done." A bitter laugh escaped her lips. "To be honest, I don't even know what to feel about the last six months, or even the last year of my life. I know that there is a lot of shame. But beyond that, it's almost like I've been walking in a fog, and it's only just now starting to clear."
She looked at me expectantly, but I didn't say anything. I was a prison guard, watching in horror as the inmate began to realize that she'd had the weapons all along, and I was afraid.