As I sit in my half-packed bedroom smoke leaks out my mouth as the warm liquid pushes its way inside. My first drink in four years and my first smoke in double that.
“Doris, what’s the big deal? I want to get fat free milk.” This was the moment where everything collided and for the first time, this outcome seemed somehow completely inevitable.
Her skin prickled and she wasn’t sure if it was from the mechanical chill pumping out the open door or the broiling anger that swelled inside her. Carl watched her, waiting for a response. His eyes looked right through her, how long had they done that? Not through her but past her – towards something else, someone else.
“Yeah okay, put it in the cart.” Doris muttered.
“What? I can tell you’re thinking something honey.”
“We’ve just always gotten two percent.” She began to push the cart towards the next aisle.
Carl laughed, “Seriously, that’s why you’re upset? What’s wrong with an old man just trying to straighten up his diet?”
“I just don’t understand why you’re choosing now is all.”
I wonder exactly how blind he thinks I am. Does he honestly believe I haven’t noticed him coming home progressively later and later with a wolfish grin on his face? The past few years he has crept around the house, ducking behind corners to avoid me when possible. He’s like a boy who believes he has gotten away with snatching a cookie off the counter before dinner. The lipstick on his sleeve was the hardest to ignore. But still, I dutifully scrubbed the shirt clean and hung it in his closet so he could wear it to their next meeting.
My husband used to love me, I know he did. Maybe it wasn’t exactly how he imagined it would be but I know he did. We were so excited for our first- he used to talk to my belly so the baby would know his voice and he never missed a doctor’s appointment. We were so young then, only 28, married for only three years. He once missed a big meeting for one such appointment and as a result, lost an important client and when I expressed how sorry I was, he said this mattered more. Then the night that I woke up and everything felt warm and sticky. He woke up with me and turned on the light. That’s when I saw the red. Red on the sheets and on my pants and on the insides of my eyelids. He drove so fast but it was too late, we lost him.
After that, he slept a little further away and by the time the second one came around he missed appointments claiming he couldn’t miss a meeting with a client. I know he was hurting but so was I and instead of anchoring me to our life together, he cast me away to float on my own. I became smaller and smaller until he hardly had to side-step me to go call her on the back porch. He thought I didn’t notice or couldn’t hear- the way he whispered to her, the way he used to whisper to me. But he was wrong, I had never heard a sound more deafening in my entire life.
Doris pushed the cart to the next aisle before waiting for a response from him. The lies were heavy and she did not need more weight to bear. She wondered if they were as heavy on him or if they slid off his skin as slick as silk. From years of practice and the promise of something more worth his time, someone worth more than her at the other end of the lie.
“I keep forgetting to tell you but I have to travel for work this weekend, is that okay?” Carl asked.
“I guess that’s fine if you have to go. Brianna was talking about coming home though, might be nice for you to spend some time with her, she misses you.” Doris said. She hoped that maybe the promise of seeing his daughter would be enough to convince him to stay. The thought of him being with her poolside at some expensive hotel all weekend was just too much to stomach.
“Shoot, I miss her too but I really can’t miss this trip.”
“Let me guess, an important client will be there?”
“Doris, don’t do this. I hate when work takes away from family time just as much as you do, but this is an important trip. Someone has to pay for all those expensive shoes you love so much.” He chuckled and jokingly nudged her.
Doris sighed, “I guess if you have to go, then you have to go. I’ll tell Brianna you said hi.”
I wonder if they’ll move in together now, now that he’s finally freed of the obligations that wrapped around him all those years. I wonder if she’ll cook and clean as diligently as I have – something tells me that she’s not the type. I wonder if he’ll introduce her to Brianna and what they’ll think of each other. Helping her move to college was a hard day, for all three of us. I mean, it’s hard for all parents I think. He held me that night and drove home when I couldn’t see through my tears. It began to break me after that, realizing that my sorrow was the only thing that was enough to bring him close enough. I began to let little things upset me, if only so he would notice me. The creeping around and the late night phone calls didn’t stop but they didn’t increase either. I figured at least this way, when he was around it felt like he was really mine again. It’s been a year since Brianna left and the house has only gotten lonelier.
I guess I should face the fact that I’ll have to go back to work. Replace PTA meetings with a real briefcase – do people even carry those anymore? Funny to think how so many years ago I wanted to work, I was even offered a CEO position at the company. But I turned it down, teary-eyed, because it seemed like the right thing to do. I still remember that phone call.
“We just think you would be an incredible asset to the company. I wish you would reconsider Doris.”
“I’m really sorry, I just don’t think now is the best time for me to take on such a big position.” Doris held her breath so the woman on the other end of the phone wouldn’t hear her tearful whimpers.
“Look, I’ve been there. When I started climbing the corporate ladder my sons were in elementary school and I didn’t know how I would balance it but I talked to my husband and we came up with a plan and we managed. You have to think of your life after your children too, Doris. I consider us friends and I just don’t want to see you become one of those moms that are so consumed by their children’s lives that they’re empty when they leave.”
“I know, I know. Thank you Alison, that means a lot- I just think I have to follow a different path right now.”
“Okay well just know there’s always a place for you here and reach out if you ever need a reference or want to grab coffee or something.”
“Thank you, yes I’ll…I’ll do that.”
I hung up the phone and cried in that Walmart parking lot for a good thirty minutes before heading home. When I got there, Carl asked me how my day was. Fine, was the answer I gave him. I just couldn’t find it in me to tell him what I had just done. I was worried he’d feel guilty or that I had sacrificed too much. I didn’t want his pity, no matter how much I probably deserved it. If only I had known how this would all crumble regardless.
Doris pushed the cart down the spices aisle as a young woman approached Carl.
“Excuse me.” She directed her attention towards Carl while Doris watched out of the corner of her eye.
“Can you get something for me?” She smiled sheepishly and looked down at her feet, “I just can’t reach it.”
“Yeah of course.” Carl said through smiling teeth.
Doria watched as his body stretched to reach the spice and to placed it in her soft palm.
“Thanks a bunch.”
“Yeah no problem at all.”
I remember so vividly the first moment I saw her and wondered if she saw me back. Carl took me to an office Christmas party, the first one he attended. Was she the reason he finally decided to go after all those years? I wore a simple black dress and hers was red and low-cut. Every eye in the room glassed over as her ornamented hips waltzed across the room. Carl stayed with me for an hour or so- introducing me around and handing me drinks- until he excused himself to go to the bathroom. I saw him slip into a back office with her and I drank another three champagnes until he emerged again. I measured the time in handshakes and small talk until I felt his hand on the small of my back as if I wouldn’t notice the scent of her perfume on his neck. I smiled through the night and then began planning. Whenever someone thought of the epitome of the perfect wife, my face would come to mind and in that way, I would win.
“Is this length okay?”
“Yeah I like it, maybe a little blonder,” I instructed the hair stylist.
I walked into the house that night and served Carl dinner, flipping my new hair around and hating every second of it. Finally, as he sat hunched over his plate with his phone in his lap, I caved, “Notice anything different?”
“Like what? With the dinner? Yeah, I guess it’s more… flavorful than usual.”
The wince at the end of his sentence showed how clearly he knew he was playing a dangerous game with a scorned woman.
“With what then?”,the self-righteous smirk he normally wore had melted into shifting eyes of unease.
I took his plate before he was done and began washing the dishes. He came to me and hugged me while I pretended to not notice his reflection in the window before me. In the weeks that followed I began trying different things. I began having people over to the house, I took up painting, I got a tattoo on my ankle that I always wanted and still, nothing seemed large enough to steal the spotlight that focused so strongly on her. I felt like the walking embodiment of a cliche, the woman who tries endlessly to win over her cheating husband’s attention, and yet I found it near impossible to stop.
The pair loaded the groceries into the car and got in the front seat. Carl reached for Doris’ hand and her mascara began to run down her cheeks.
“Honey, if you really don’t want me to go on that trip then I won’t go. I didn’t know it meant that much to you that I be home this weekend.”
“Yeah, yeah what is it?”
“What’s her name?” Doris looked over at him with gentle eyes. Eyes that were searching for answers that she didn’t know if she wanted to find.
“Who?” Carl’s eyes began to dart around the car like a shark, flitting in and out of the filtered light in deep waters, looking anywhere but at his wife.
Doris turned completely towards him, her eyes now dry, “Don’t give me that crap, you know that I know. You know me Carl, we’ve been together twenty years. There’s no way in hell that you honestly believed I haven’t noticed.”
“I just…I just thought- ”
“What? What did you think?”
“I thought it would be over by now, I thought it wouldn’t last this long, I thought I was just living out some mid-life crisis and once I got it out of my system I would be able to be better, for you.” Carl seemed slightly out of breath.
“Well?” Doris asked.
“Well what happened to derail you from that plan?”
“Well I fell in l- ”
Doris suddenly began to laugh, “Oh my god don’t say it. Don’t even say it. You’re a goddamn statistic do you know that Carl? You’re so typical, falling in love with the young receptionist. It doesn’t get more cliche than that. You always fought against stereotypes and always resisted following conformity just to fit in but now look at you – you’ve fallen into the worst one of them all.”
“I’m so sorry Doris, I honestly didn- ”
“It’s fine, really it is. My heart accepted this a long time ago, I just don’t know why my head took this long to finally realize that the inevitable is happening. The rapture, the end of times, life as we knew it falling apart before my very eyes- it’s here, at long last.”
The two sat in silence for a couple minutes and Doris turned back towards the front windshield.
“So what do we do now?” Carl asked.
“We’re going to go home and you’re going to call your daughter and tell her what you’ve done, what you’ve been doing. Then you’re going to pack your things and take your milk and get out of the house. We can discuss the paperwork and legal shit next week. For now I just want you gone.”
“I really do love you, you know. I always have.” Carl said with damp eyes.
“Yeah, yeah I know.” Doris whispered and he wasn’t sure if it was meant for him or for the man she married all those years ago.