“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said. Not one.” He sighed deeply, completely exasperated and exhausted.
“Yes, I have. I understand what you’re saying. I do,” she responded. “I told you — I agree with you. We’ve gotten into a rut. A lot of couples go through this after they have kids. We just need to work harder at being a couple — the way we used to be.”
She ran her fingers through his hair as she spoke. He did not reciprocate, sitting perfectly still, his expression a mixture of astonishment and bewilderment.
“We just need to try harder to carve out time for ourselves,” she continued as she tried to wrap her leg around his under the small square table at which they were seated in the window of the Barnes and Noble store.
“Why do you think I asked you to meet me here?” he asked quietly.
“So that we could get out of the house by ourselves for a while, of course,” she replied. “I think it was a great idea, too,” she gushed as she sipped her latte. “It’s nice to be here without the kids for a little while, sitting on the grown-up chairs and not having to read to someone else. We’re not in a hurry, right? You got Andrea to babysit for the whole evening, didn’t you? Because I would really like to pick up the new selection for Oprah’s book club. Margie says she has already read it and it’s wonderful. And then I was hoping we could have dinner and maybe later . . . ” her voice trailed off as she reached for his hand. He pulled away, pretending to search for something in the pocket of his jacket.
Oblivious, she prattled on. “We could sneak in the back door and up the stairs without Andrea or the kids hearing us. Then we could pretend later that we were just coming home. Remember when we did that on our anniversary? How many years ago was that, anyway? Six? Or was it seven? They had no idea we were right upstairs. Remember?” She put her arm around the back of his chair and leaned close to his ear as she spoke. “I don’t know where the time goes . . . I can’t believe we’re coming up on our twelfth anniversary already, can you?”
“Clair! For god’s sake!” he exclaimed through clenched teeth, trying his best not to raise his voice in the busy store. “You’re not hearing me at all!”
“All right, Paul.” She sat up straight and faced him. “It’s obvious that you have something else on your mind. I’m all yours — and all ears.” She looked at him with a slightly bemused and somewhat condescending expression, the way a mother looks at a child she is humoring when the child demands her attention.
“Clair, we’re not going out to dinner,” he began again. “And no, I didn’t arrange for Andrea to babysit all evening.”
“Oh,” she said, her disappointment palpable. “Why not?”
“Clair, I asked you to meet me here — in a public place — because I thought it would be easier to do this where we both have to stay calm and in control.”
She was perplexed. As he spoke, he had put both of his hands flat on the table in front of him as if to steady himself and emphasize the import of his words.
“Paul, you’re scaring me. And, by the way, where is your wedding ring?” She had just noticed that the ring he had worn each and every day for nearly twelve years was not on his finger.
“Clair, my wedding ring is in your jewelry box on the dresser. I think you should keep it there for now. Perhaps someday you will want Jacob to have it.”
“What? Why aren’t you wearing it?” she asked suspiciously, panic beginning to creep into both her vocal inflection and her eyes.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. We’re not going to dinner and I’m not going back to the house with you.”
Now it was her turn to sit perfectly still. She felt as though all of the air had been sucked out of the store and the people in it were all moving in slow motion.
“Clair, I’m leaving. This is it. I wanted to tell you here where you would not be able to cry and beg . . . ” he trailed off, realizing how ugly his voice sounded. He sat for a couple of moments, letting his words penetrate his wife’s consciousness, allowing her to finally understand what he had been trying to tell her for far too long.
“You’re leaving me? You’re leaving us?” she asked matter-of-factly, her voice barely audible as she struggled to maintain her composure.
“No, Clair, I’m not leaving the children,” he replied calmly. “I’m their father and I’ll always be their father. I will always be in their lives. We’ll have to work all of that out. My lawyer will be in touch with your lawyer after you hire one . . . ”
“You already have a lawyer?” she whispered as tears began to roll down her cheeks. “When did you make all of these decisions? When did you decide to rip our lives apart?”
“You and I have not been happy for a long time, Clair,” he countered. “I have been trying to tell you, but you just haven’t paid attention. You haven’t heard me. You have no idea what I think, what I feel, what I want . . . ”
She could not believe what was happening. She wanted to get up and run out of the store, but she was paralyzed by the shock of his announcement and the weight of the future as she involuntarily began to visualize it.
“This just isn’t working for me. Neither of us is right and neither of us is wrong. No one is to blame . . . ”
“Oh, spare me,” she said sarcastically, cutting him off. “Save the Dr. Phil-inspired speeches for someone else.” As soon as she said the words “someone else,” the look on his face answered all of her questions.
“Oh, my god . . . that’s it, isn’t it?” She stared at him as though she had never seen him before in her life. “Oh, please tell me that I’m wrong. Please. Please convince me that you aren’t just one big, fat cliche. One humongous, cliched mid-life crisis.”
He stared down at the table, unable to meet her eyes.
“Oh, you are. You son-of-a-bitch, you are a cliche. A ridiculous stereotype. Who is it? Your secretary? Or worse, one of the mothers at Megan’s school? One of those vapid divorcees who stand beside their SUV’s in the parking lot every morning in their tennis outfits trying to snag someone else’s husband? One of those insipid, size two, bleached blonde hussies? Is that what kind of woman you’re leaving your family for?”
“Does it really matter?” he asked without looking up at her.
“Yes. Yes, Buster, it most certainly does. It matters a great deal to me,” she pushed back angrily. “I want to know just how big a jackass you really are.”
“All right. I might as well tell you because you’ll find out eventually,” he said wearily. “I’ve been seeing Jackie for eight months now.”
She stared at him. He looked back down at the table, as he continued speaking. “Jim is at the house picking up my things. I packed a couple of bags and put them in the garage where you wouldn’t notice. He is taking them to Jackie’s condo right now. I thought it would be easier if I told you this way and just didn’t go back to the house. A clean break, so to speak.”
The silence between them was interrupted only by the sound of his reaching into his pocket for a ring of keys. He set them on the table. “Here is my house key, as well as the key to the Range Rover. I will keep the Lexus, of course.”
She neither moved nor responded. She just looked at the keys lying on the table, her face expressionless as the tears slowly traversed her cheeks.
Finally, shuffling his feet uncomfortably, he spoke. “Jackie is picking me up here in ten minutes.”
She continued to look down at the keys, not speaking.
“Clair, I’m sorry. I just need to move on with my life. What we had was good in the beginning, but it hasn’t been good between us for a long time. I need to feel like what’s important to me matters to someone else. I need to talk with someone about more than what time to pick Megan up from school and whether Jacob did his homework, and who is going to take the dog to the groomer, and should Megan get braces now or next year, and whether I can take a day off work to go on the father-son field trip, and is the garbage pick-up schedule changed by the fact that Monday is a holiday, and should we buy a new couch or reupholster the old one and do we have enough fridge space for all the food you are going to prepare when your relatives come over for Christmas dinner or should be buy a new wide by side and put the old fridge in the garage and . . . dammit, Clair, I want to feel like more than just a paycheck to someone! I need to feel wanted again. The way a woman is supposed to want a man, Clair.”
“You and I used to talk about all kinds of things. You were so fascinating. I marveled at your intellect, the way you managed everything so expertly. You were well-read and always had an opinion . . . god, I used to love sitting in places like this store with you, just talking about all kinds of things. When was the last time you finished a book? You just pile them up on the nightstand now, but you never read any more. Remember the dinner parties we used to throw? The conversations we used to have, arguing about politics until the next morning? Our friends loved our parties. But since you quit working and decided to just stay home with the kids, things have been so different. You’re different. We’re different. When was the last time we talked about anything that didn’t have to do with the kids, the house or the relatives? I can’t even remember. Can you?”
“We’ve just grown apart,” he sighed. “That’s all. It happens. Jackie and I have things in common beyond the kids. She pays attention to me, to what is important to me. She cares about how she looks and enjoys looking good for me. Clair, be honest. You lost interest in me a long time ago. When was the last time you wore something other than those ugly old sweats to bed?”
Silence as more tears slowly trickled down her cheeks..
“Oh, god, Clair, that came out wrong . . . I didn’t mean . . . ” he fumbled.
After several long moments, she looked directly in his eyes as she quietly asked, “And Jackie gives you all the attention that you need?”
He sheepishly looked back down at the table as he mumbled, “Yes. Yes, she does.”
“Good. Good for you. Good for both of you,” she said resolutely. “I’m glad. Paul, I’m genuinely glad for both of you. I think you’ll be very happy together. In fact, I think you’re absolutely right about all of it. You deserve to be with someone like Jackie. She no doubt understands you far better than I ever did — or could.”
She continued. “Fortunately for both of you, at Jackie’s condo you won’t have to worry about any of those issues you just listed since Jackie has no children. She has plenty of time and energy to give you all of the attention that I obviously have been unable to devote to you while I’ve been busy raising our children and maintaining our home. My home. I need to get used to saying that, don’t I? My house. My home. You no longer live there. You live in a condo. With her.”
She took a tissue out of her bag with which she wiped the tears from her face. Then she stood, slipped on her jacket, and put her bag on her shoulder. She picked up the key ring from the table where Paul had placed it. Holding the keys, she faced Paul, who was still sitting at the table, shoulders slumped. As she gazed at him, it occurred to her that until that very moment, she had never noticed how much he had aged in the years since their wedding. She was struck by how old he looked sitting there.
“Paul, I just have one more thing to say to you before I return to my house to care for our children,” she stated in a business-like tone.
“What’s that, Clair?” he asked, finally throwing his shoulders back and looking into her eyes.
“I hope, for your sake, that the lawyer you hired is very, very good. You are going to need a really, really good lawyer, Paul.”
With the keys in her hand, she walked out of the front door of the store into the parking lot.
And into her future.