A Boilerplate Rendering Ch. 02byTheUnoriginalist©
Karen was up earlier than usual Saturday morning.
I wasn't all that surprised. Usually, on her "girls' nights out," she would stagger in around ten and have a glass of wine in the hot tub before coming to bed. This was a relatively new routine, one that I had initially viewed as an unspoken request for an extension of "me" time at the end of the day.
Now, I saw it in a very different and much uglier light.
A hot tub dip did, after all, seem like the best way to indulge in the relaxing afterglow of an evening of uninhibited sex. It helped to clean you off before bed, as well.
On this particular Friday, however, she had gotten home just after 9:30 and taken only the quickest of showers before staggering wearily into bed. She'd looked exhausted, stressed out, and more than a little ashamed of herself.
Still, even in the shade of this sudden change, I couldn't stop myself from studying her clothes, her hair, even the way she came in through the door. My eyes were hunting for evidence I didn't remotely want to find, or care about.
And this was MY newest habit...a horrible match to her own. It came on as a series of questions that were so small, and so unconsciously placed, that it sometimes felt like drowning in an inch of water. Was the fabric at the front of her outfit a little wrinkled? Was that stray hair frizzing up behind her right ear actually a rogue that had escaped her efforts to straighten up on the way home? Was she walking funny?
The urge to assess the unassessable was overwhelming. It was also unwelcome, and it made me sick to my stomach that I couldn't control it any more than I did. I didn't want to know the answers to the questions, of course. I didn't even want to know what the questions WERE.
But just try stopping, and see how you do.
She shuffled into the kitchen that particular Saturday morning in a robe and slippers, her face fixed with a baggy-eyed kind of determination. She got into it as soon as she had her breakfast in hand.
Just as I had been expecting her to.
"You caught me off guard last night," she husked. She punctuated this declaration by throwing me an accusatory look, and dropping her breakfast noisily on the table. "If you'd given me any time to think about it...any time at all...I would have refused. I would have stayed home in spite of your stupid little threats, and we would have talked about it. Talked. Like adults." The shake of her head was a nice touch. "You do realize that, don't you?"
Of course I do, you idiot. But why would you think that I would ever want to talk to you about anything, ever again? "I considered the possibility that you might do something like that...that you might miss the chance to save yourself in some fit of egotistical defiance." I hadn't yet looked up from my paper. "That's exactly why I chose NOT to give you time to think. I was doing you a favour."
I could feel her exasperated stare. I rather enjoyed it.
"Goddamn it, John," she snapped, waving her arms. "LOOK at me! For one goddamn minute, set the fucking paper down and look at me!"
I calmly set the paper down and gave her my attention.
"I don't want THIS to be our marriage! I don't want to live my life apart from you, but with you making demands about how I spend my time! And," she leaned forward, lowering her voice, "more than any of that, I don't want to keep doing this to you. I can't keep doing this to you. It isn't right."
Well, that just beat all. "DOING this to me?" I gave a derisive snort. "Oh, I really don't think you understand, Karen. This isn't something that you're DOING to me. Not anymore. This is something that you've already DONE. It's been. It's acted upon. The bullet has left the chamber, sailed through air, and is lodged well and deep within the meat and bone." I leaned forward, "It CAN. NOT. BE. REVOKED. Do you get that? Am I getting through to you at all? We can stop hashing it over, because nothing we say can ever change what's been done. YOU, my dear wife, betrayed me. You lied and you cheated. On our family. On our life together. That will never, never not be a part of your story, or our marriage's story...it will never not be a part of who you are. And while it's certainly not something that I wanted, YOU made the decision without any input from me whatsoever. So now you don't like having to live with the consequences, but you don't get to undo it, hey presto, just because you've discovered that your little adventure has ugly ramifications for your life moving forward."
"Stop it, John! Just stop it!" There were tears in her eyes. I guess they seemed real enough. "Doesn't our marriage mean anything to you? Don't you care at all? It's not fucking fair that-"
"DON'T TALK TO ME ABOUT FAIR!"
My fist had smashed down onto the table, knocking my juice over and spilling it across the floor. I hadn't even realized that I was moving.
Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath and thought of cool mountain streams. Then, with my self-control a little regenerated, I went on. "If you look at your situation clinically...if you really step back and think about the alternatives...then I think you'll start to realize where these doubts you're feeling now come from. They aren't love, or hope, or worry over your marriage. They are guilt, and they are fear. Do you understand? They aren't made from rational thought, they aren't birthed by any kind of desire...and they certainly aren't indicators of what you really want." I sipped my coffee. "The current situation is THE situation that is best for you. And it's the only one left that works for me. So while I appreciate the fact that you're...concerned...you don't need to be. Not about me, not anymore. It doesn't do anybody any good."
You haven't cared about me for a long time, now. So why change?
I leaned down and wiped up the spilled juice. "I meant what I said last night, Karen...right now, I don't have any sexual feelings towards you whatsoever, and I don't know that that situation isn't going to be permanent. The thought of touching you makes me sick. So in that one very important regard you and I are done." I also doubt that I could be that close to you and keep from wrapping my hands around your throat. I'm not prepared to risk finding out. "But I also meant it when I said that I love you, and that I have no intentions of leaving. Obviously my feelings could change in the future, just as your feelings about me could change...but the only way I can see right now that I might leave is if you start using your affair to humiliate me publicly, start to show signs that you're falling in love, or break it off and try to make me be with you in a way that I'm unwilling to do."
"I want you to be happy," I insisted loudly. "Can we at least both admit that this is the best, perhaps only, way for that to happen?"
"I'm afraid it is."
She swallowed. "I don't want to believe that."
"I don't care what you want to believe." I held up my hands, breathed out through my nose, and changed tactics. "Do you realize, Karen, how happy you have been the last few months?"
"Oh, yes," I waved a hand. "Smiling, relaxed, laughing at bad jokes and listening as the girls told you about their day. You've been more upbeat and attentive than I've ever seen you before."
I'm almost not lying about it, either. When you get to feeling guilty about just what a good time you're having away from us, you show remarkable flashes of deep caring and concern. Maybe, if you see that as your way through this, it'll become true all the time. The girls would certainly benefit from that, and it would keep you out of my hair.
Come on. Do something for someone else, for a change, Karen.
"John," she stammered, "I...I didn't realize..."
"Of course you didn't. Why would you? Your attention was elsewhere."
She ducked her head. "I wasn't trying to throw it in your face, you know. I swear that I wasn't. I just...when I was...with him...I would miss you. All of you, I mean. My family. It made me realize..." She had her hand over her mouth, and was trying not to cry.
"I know." I took a bite of my food. "But then...was it three weeks ago? When his mom was sick? He flew out to see her, and you couldn't see each other for four or five days." I shook my head and chuckled mirthlessly. "You really turned into a monster, didn't you? I haven't seen you that pissy since you had all those pains during your second pregnancy." I paused to stab at my food a little more with my fork. I didn't bother to take a bite, though. "And I don't think I've ever seen you that downright mean. Not ever. We took the brunt of your anger at being denied something we couldn't even give you. So how fair was that?"
Now she was in full blown crying mode. "I...I didn't mean to-"
Good. Break her down, and then help her see the way back. And don't you dare give her a chance to reconsider her options.
"The point is, in general you've been happier than I can ever remember, and that has impacted the way you behave around the house. It impacted me and the kids, as well. Your happiness has made everybody's life a little bit easier. So why would either of us want that to go away?"
"I want to be happy with YOU," she insisted wetly.
We don't get to choose, though, do we bitch? "You are happy with me. It's just that what you do with him supports that."
"I'm so scared," she wiped at her nose with the sleeve of her robe. "I'm scared that you're going to leave me."
"You know I won't do that."
She shook her head. "But why aren't YOU scared? If we were reversed...if you were doing this to me, I'd...I'd...God!"
I decided she was owed a bit of honesty...on just this one subject, anyway. She'd been so patient and accepting of all my little lies, so far. One little truth could be granted.
"I AM scared, Karen. In fact, I'm terrified. Do you want to know why?" She nodded. "I'm scared because it turns out that I'm all alone. Do you have any idea what that's like? No. Of course you don't." I set the fork down. "I felt like I had a lot going for me, for a very long time. I was privileged, you know? Victorious." I looked away. "I find, now, that I have very little left to lose, and I'm very scared that I won't be able to protect and keep it." And it just so happens that the list doesn't include you.
But maybe she already knew that, because she ran from the room in tears.
I simply stood up, another mission completed, and put my dishes in the sink. Then I went outside to work in the lawn.
When I came in a few hours later, wiping the sweat from my face with my sleeve and looking forward to a cool shower, the contents of the envelope (as in "THE envelope") were spread out all over our bed. I'd been waiting for that to happen. I'd even left it out for her, knowing her curiosity would eventually force her to see how complete my understanding of her affair really was.
The transcripts, the pictures, the CDs and DVDs...they were all out. So now she knew.
She was in the bathroom, with the shower running. The girls had gone over to a friend's, so there wasn't any worry about them finding the tawdry stuff currently on display on my bedspread. I went to make myself some more coffee, leaving it there.
She finally emerged twenty-five minutes later wearing sweatpants, a tank top, and a contritely insecure look that was refreshingly new for her. She'd taken on a level of self-confidence since stepping out on our marriage that might have been laudable under other circumstances, but just sickened me for knowing the source. Anyway, it bordered on arrogance sometimes, and when that happened it made her hard to be around.
Still, not for the first time recently, I did note how great she looked. I observed it with the kind of unfeeling distance a normal person might feel when walking through a museum. I could see a remarkable display of aesthetic beauty and not feel anything about it, not have it mean anything other than that I knew it was there.
Christ, she'd taken ten years off her age in the last few months. Those years, gained as a result of her infidelity, had all been stolen mercilessly from my own face. I wasn't so blind that I couldn't see that I'd had aged significantly in the very same time frame. I just couldn't bring myself to care, anymore.
"Hi," she offered sheepishly now, looking miserable and not meeting my gaze. Her eyes were rimmed red, and she ran a thumb under them as she came into the room.
"You looked over the report," I observed, handing her a cup of coffee and inviting her to sit down.
She nodded. "I didn't realize that...I mean, I know you said you knew everything, but..." She blew on her coffee.
"If it helps, the "knowing everything" bit is what made me decide to stay. If all I had was some grainy shots of you...sleeping with him...I believe I would have handled it very differently. And we'd both be worse off for it, by the way. Knowing everything is what helped me see that you were still invested in us. Even if the return was getting to be less and less for all the other investors."
"Well, it sure didn't make me feel like a good person to see it all laid out like that." She sipped her coffee. "It was even harder, realizing that everything I was looking at and hearing you had seen and heard, too. Realizing that you knew all the things we did together, the things I said to him." She glanced up. "You even knew about the car."
She shook her head in wonder. "And you didn't even try to stop me. You let me trade in our family van, with all its memories, and you knew exactly why I wanted that SUV all along."
Oh, no you don't. You don't get to put this on me. "I didn't know yet, at that point. In fact, you wanting that car...that EXACT car...was part of what got me asking questions. You think I didn't notice that it was an exact match for Carl's? You should have seen the look on your face when you spotted it on the lot." I clenched my jaw. "Like a goddamn child. At Christmas."
She made a face. "Like a child. That seems like a good description for me, lately."
"No. Happy. Happy is a good description for you lately. And maybe that's all that matters. The rest of this..." I flicked my wrist dismissively.
She looked at me sceptically. "You can't possibly expect me to believe that you aren't dying inside, John. Jesus, I can see it written all over your face!"
That's strange, Karen, because you sure missed it before. In fact, you barely saw me at all.
"Okay. So I'm hurting," I shrugged. "Would that be any less the case if I left? Or if you did? If you stopped seeing him and stopped being happy, and we had to go through the whole experience of trying and failing to restart our love life? With you uninterested and me unable to perform? Would that make me stop hurting?" I shook my head. "I have a wife, whom I do love, and I have two wonderful children who mean everything to me. Right now, they are all the happiest I've ever seen them. I can live with hurting, if that's the payoff."
You'll never take my children away from me. I promise you that. I'll say and do anything I have to, to make sure that doesn't happen.
"I don't like being the one who's hurting you."
Ha. That's rich. "You do a lot of things, Kay. Only the one actually hurts me." It hurts me more than anything has ever hurt. It hurts a little more with every passing second. I smiled. "Don't make it bigger than it has to be."
Sometimes I wish you'd just killed me instead. Isn't that pathetic? Sometimes I give in to the sadness just enough to let myself wish I was dead.
She wasn't remotely mollified. "I don't understand it, though. How can you possibly be prepared to live this way?"
"Are you kidding me? I've BEEN living this way, Karen. For some time, by the way."
"But how can you just...leave it that way? How can you not want to fight for more?"
I leaned forward impatiently. The value of this conversation comparative to my plans was rapidly diminishing, and I needed to bring it to a close. "Do you still love me?" I asked quietly.
"Of course!" She insisted predictably.
"Then that's how." I shrugged. "That's how everything. Okay?"
She pushed away from the table and rushed over, wrapping her arms around me and burying her head in my chest. I held her like that, letting her cry into me for a few moments and fighting the urge to throw her to the ground, then stepped away and let her compose herself.
"So what do we do now?" She asked sorrowfully.
"We keep doing what we've been doing. That's what we do."
"It seems like the whole world's turned upside down."
"Then let it be upside down. As long as we're in the well of gravity, it won't matter to us."
"I suppose." She looked up at me. "What...what about today?"
"What do we do today? I mean..." she shifted her weight, "...did you have...plans?"
I grimaced. There was something about her fidgeting that communicated a great deal more to me than she intended.
"Well," I said, choosing my words carefully, "I've got a new book. I'm kind of looking forward to just having a relaxing day sitting around the house, reading."
She looked pleased. "You didn't want to...I don't know, go out, or...or do anything in particular?"
Disgusting. If you're going to ask for permission, at least have the strength not to be such a coward about it.
"Yeah," I lied through my teeth. "Just a quiet day, lost in my book." Then I turned to the window and forced a casualness into my words that took every bit of strength I had. "The kids won't be back before supper, so...a nice quiet day sounds just about perfect."
I heard motion behind me. She touched my arm. "Tell me you'll be here when I get back."
"You know that I will."
"That doesn't mean that I don't want to hear it," she whispered. I didn't respond, but just kept looking out the window at the calm, conformed world. After a few moments curiosity got the better of me, and I turned around into the silence. She was gone.
Well. Thank God for that.
She came out of the bedroom minutes later with stretch running pants and a sports bra top on, carrying her duffel bag. When she saw me watching it, she hefted it up and said, "Once I realized that you...knew...it seemed kind of silly to hide it in the car."
I shrugged indifference. I was well aware of her official affair tote bag, and what was in it.
For a moment we both looked at each other, me sitting in my chair with a book I had no intention of reading and her with a duffel bag and an eagerness that made me sick to my stomach. She seemed a little embarrassed, and temporarily uncertain about how to proceed, but then she smiled and timidly offered a play on her stupid little joke from the previous night.
"I won't be out too late, dad." She brushed a stray hair away from her face. Such a simple motion. So remarkably beautiful.
I looked away.
That Friday, the Baileys held one of their frequent neighborhood get-togethers. I say neighborhood, but it was really a hodgepodge of families from the area served by the nearby elementary school. You know how that goes. You can bet it didn't start with the husbands or the kids, but we all had a good time anyway.
We'd always attended these, but this one was different. I knew Carl would be there...he didn't quite fit with the couples-heavy crowd, but he was Tom Bailey's drinking buddy, and he never missed a social invitation if he had the choice. Now I wondered if he'd been using these parties as a way to saddle up to his married friends' wives.
I had done a good job of avoiding him since finding out (he'd made this fairly easy, I suppose, by avoiding me right back), but I also knew that being around other people would be nice for a change, and that the kids would have a good time. So while it was certainly tempting to back out...to claim flu or emergency and thus avoid having to see the son of a bitch...I decided I was going to just nut up and go anyway.