Hannie and I had been married for more than twenty years when I began to realize she was quite happy leaving us to ourselves in the house every Sunday afternoon while she spent time with her father at his retirement home. Arthur had a fabulous life at Willow Mountain Community — most mornings he chose between tennis, yoga, or hiking. After lunch, buses took residents to grocery stores and the mall. Arthur also enjoyed swimming in a large indoor pool on the property several times a week. Other days he took a bike ride on trails crisscrossing the Willow Mountain grounds.
When I say my wife was quite happy leaving us, I mean she was extremely enthusiastic. She would wake early, very clearly defining her day for me before we even got out of bed. Her words on Sunday mornings pulled away from me with a disconcerting, private, self-oriented joy that I’d never heard before. Her eyes seemed to be dancing in a dream she had no interest in sharing with any of us.
After we all ate Sunday breakfast, she’d put a load of laundry in the washing machine, make sure the kids were working on their homework, remind me to put the load in the dryer, and be on her way by 10:15. Sometimes she might mention a required grocery shopping before she returned. Perhaps she’d decided to check out a furniture store sale, or meet an old high school friend at Starbucks. Invariably, she would not want to give me a return time. But she would always make sure I understood what her plans were and that she would be quite busy and hard to contact.
“I’ll text you when I’m on my way home,” she would say. Left out would be an apology or the simple mention, even, that she did not feel like having a plan for when she would be home for dinner.
I think it is this last element of her Sunday schedule that slowly awakened me to the possibility that something was going on — something she did not want me to know about. No definition of a return was very un-Hannie-like. It was flying full force in the face of all her over-organized Sunday morning bluster and planning.
I am the one who cooks in our family. It just fell that way in the beginning. But I wouldn’t give that chore up for anything in the world. I drink a few glasses of wine and concoct dinner every single night without fail. I make complicated meals sometimes. I have invented dishes such as walnut mango glazed tuna and mushroom sage risotto.
When the kids were young, all four of them, I managed at times to be less adventurous, paying careful attention to my family’s true and natural culinary needs: hotdogs and crinkle fries; spaghetti and meatballs; frozen vegetables, rice, and pork chops; burgers and a fruit salad. My idea was not to be exotic all the time. I liked to keep them guessing.
For the family cook, timing the meal is everything. Being late for dinner was never a problem for more than twenty years. Our oldest two are in decent schools partly because of the time management skills they developed with respect to family dinner. Possibly also because they overcame being picky eaters at an early age, thus affording them a precocious sophistication that they themselves reinforced all the way through high school into college.
So, when Hannie started in with her Sunday excursions, my timing thing was thrown to the wind. Back about a year ago, three weekends in a row, Sunday ended with the holding of a well-considered meal until she saw fit to show up. She had texted each time and said she was on her way, but never seemed to make it home in the thirty-five minutes it should take to do the drive from the northern suburbs back to our house in the Caroline section of town.
It was disturbing the first time she did this. We ended up trying to eat very dry tuna steaks coated with pasty room temperature yogurt garlic sauce, along with limp arugula and herbs bathed to a soggy wilt in my special wine vinaigrette. To make matters worse, each time she finally arrived, she did not apologize. She sat at her place in the dining room smacking her lips and eating with gusto, proclaiming my meal the best I’d made in a long time. The two children still with us, I could tell, were a bit surprised by her behavior and quickly excused themselves after eating.
The fourth time she was late tipped the scale further for me. She texted that she would be home in half an hour but didn’t turn up until past 8:00 — nearly an hour and a half after she’d indicated. We ate at 7:00 without her. It was just hot dogs and beans, but I’d made a special broccoli stem coleslaw that I knew Hannie loved, and cheesy corn muffins as well.
Again, she did not apologize when she came through the door. She took her plate out of the oven, wolfed down her dog and beans, then stood watching the last bit of a late edition of 60 Minutes in the kitchen, shoveling slaw out of a Tupperware container into her mouth. I was demonstratively annoyed. But she was fully oblivious to that – seemed to be, anyway. I thought back to her words from that morning and recalled a sort of clipped way she’d said things to me. Somehow, her words had made me fell slightly off-kilter and distanced from her — handled would be the word.
“What the fuck is happening?” I said to the bathroom mirror with the exhaust fan on. That’s when I began to wonder if I was worthy of her, if she’d ever loved me as much as I loved her. I searched back in time thinking about all the stupid things I’d ever said. I also knew I was pompous and self-important sometimes. Maybe that was finally getting to her. Maybe she needed something different, or something more. When you’re kind of an asshole in everything you do, which I admit I am, it starts to eat at you when you doubt you wife’s love for you. It should anyway.
Love is how it all starts, but not how things finish – maybe. At least, love changes over time, does it not? Things are said. One or both of you fall into holes. Alcohol is always an issue somehow, someway, there in the middle. It certainly almost always is at the end of things. I can say this now, at my age: Most of us are such stupid fuckers.
Kids create wonderful problems, too. That tests everything that should have been fairly-straightforward between two people. Once kids come along, and once things are said with them as witnesses, love can become more of an historical fact than is probably healthy. Anyone with half a brain who has loved and lost knows that you never let love become a fact of any kind.
I might well have just sent Hannie a clear message that night she wasn’t on time and so poor at communicating. I’m not averse to throwing out leftover food, cleaning up, and using my God given passive aggressive skills: “Sorry. We figured you were having dinner somewhere else since you didn’t call.”
But we promised not to ever be like that in our relationship. No retribution. No indirect communication. We had enough sense at one time to talk everything through. In truth we had more riding on the line between us than most couples. And we knew how hard it was to beat the odds.
That fourth Sunday was the beginning, really, of the next phase of my life. Hannie didn’t text any of us. I stupidly assumed that meant dinner at 6:30 as always. But she wasn’t there when it came time to eat. The table was set. Her plate was empty. The three of us had dinner sans mom. I texted her twice during the meal, called once. Nothing. I texted our two older children in New England just in case she’d been in touch with them. Nothing.
She straggled in at 9:30 or so. I was doing the dishes. She entered the house through the back door, walked into the kitchen and said, “Whoops, I missed dinner again, didn’t I?”
I turned and smiled a bit sadly at her. “We missed you,” I said. Then I returned to scouring a pot in the sink, demonstrating an intense level of focus and concentration.
I remember shifting into the deep breathing mode I used to use with the kids when they were young. I knew that silence was the only defense I had left. Opening my mouth and speaking would not end well. But that deep breathing thing also made me feel sad – sad and sorry for myself. Sad and sorry for my entire life right up to that moment.
She came across the room and leaned her head against the back of my shoulder. “I need a shower,” she mumbled. “I’m going to take a quick one, okay?”
“Really? Can’t you eat first? I’ve got leftover lemon chicken and saffron pasta in the oven. We saved some pecan salad for you.” She was no longer leaning into me.
I turned to find her inching toward the steps that led upstairs. She stretched languidly, yawned and said, “I really need a shower. I’ll eat when I come down okay? Promise.” And she was gone.
I continued to practice deep breathing while I finished up the dishes as fast as I could. As every considerate family member who lives in relatively old houses knows, when someone is taking a shower, you turn off all the other taps as quickly as possible so that the showerer isn’t flummoxed by unpleasant temperature and pressure shifts.
You should have just gotten it over with, I told myself.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I would ask, but she had now hit the level of too obvious. “What’s up with you all of a sudden? Is there something you want to tell me about? You’re acting a bit strange. How come…. How come…? What are you doing…? Is … is… is there someone else?” Rip the Band-Aid off. Yank the tooth. Jump into the abyss! Just do it.
It was a bit too forward and discombobulating to even think like that. More than twenty years is a lifetime. Everything is supposed to be the way it’s supposed to be. Nothing is supposed to change. I needed to finish the dishes quickly.
They say when you feel like something’s going on, that means something’s going on. They also say: if it looks like a turd in the punchbowl and you get even a slight wisp of turd scent floating up mixed in with the sweet fragrance of citrus and rum, then there is indeed a turd floating right in front of you. How one learns this type of thing I do not know. It’s out there, of course. The internet is a sordid, comical brothel of pregnant philosophy and kinky advice. TV wisdom has been seeping into everything for decades. At that point in my life, I’d never watched Ellen, Montel, Dr. Phil, or Jerry Springer, but I knew a lot about infidelity – probably too much. I also knew that Hannie was the most level-headed, honest, guileless person I’d ever encountered, which is one reason why I loved her so much. How could she do something so destructive and selfish?
My arms and hands seemed a bit numb as I finished up the pots and pans. My heart was racing.
That’s what the heart does just before it breaks, I thought to myself. “My fucking heart is breaking and there’s nothing I can do about it. And I’m a pathetic chump. Cuckolded and about to be kicked to the side of the road.” I believe I said that out loud with the garbage disposal running.
Is that kind of pain from not knowing, or in thinking you do? All of a sudden, it was so easy to understand how private detectives could make a decent living. I pulled an old copy of the Yellow Pages from the cupboard near where our phone used to be connected and opened it to “Detective Agencies.” I was surprised to find only five companies listed. However, under the “Detective Agencies” title it said, “See Also Investigators.” Sure enough, when I tracked that listing down, I found twenty or thirty firms. As I scanned the listings, a strange feeling that I was missing something began to poke me in the gut. The feeling continued to grow as I tried to decide how to start researching possible companies for assistance in spying on my wife. What the hell was picking at me? What was I missing?
Finally, I went back to the detective listings and there it was: a tiny check mark next to four of the five companies –tiny check marks exactly like the delicate ones Hannie made on shopping lists and the refrigerator calendar. Why would she need a detective, I wondered as I flipped back to check the investigator page again? Nothing had been marked on that page.
I went back to the first listing. The detective agency that had not been checked was the only one with a boxed ad for their listing: “B&P Agency – Specializing in Marriage Divorce Custody Video Surveillance Research Background Checks Monitoring Polygraphs Computer Debugging Memory Retrieval Hidden Cameras Confidential Photography Domestic Troubleshooting. Satisfaction Guaranteed”
Why wasn’t that company checked off? Because they were the last company called? Maybe their list of services wasn’t suitable for Hannie’s needs? Or was it simply because they made the grade?
This was the last Yellow Pages ever delivered to us, dated 2014. So sometime from the summer of 2014 to now, more than three years later, my wife had done research on detective agencies. Buy why? And why were there no checks next to any of the companies listed as “Investigators?”
I poured myself a fourth glass of wine, put the Yellow Pages back in the cupboard, then sat down at the kitchen table. The shower was still on. You could hear the water rushing through the pipes. My two younger children were in the living room watching some spy show they liked. I should have gone and sat with them, but instead I went upstairs with my wine to our room. Her clothes were in the hamper. I picked them up and sniffed. They didn’t smell right to me, but I also had enough sense to know that in my state of mind nothing would smell right. I picked up her underwear and found a white smear in the crotch. It could have been normal discharge, or it could have been evidence of what I was hoping wasn’t true. I sniffed. My wife’s most intimate smells enveloped me immediately. I sought the chlorine sweet potency of semen in that smell. It seemed present in a way, but I couldn’t tell. Not really.
Just then the shower turned off. I dropped her panties back in the hamper, took a big sip of wine, then quite stealthily made my way back down to the kitchen.
When she appeared ten minutes later in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, I had her meal on the table, covered by a silver platter top. It was time to ask, I thought. The blues is real. Life is sad. Love is so delicate. Love is too powerful for happiness. I am going to ask, and then I am going to want to die, just like in the songs.
But I didn’t ask. Her clipped and knowing speech was gone. She spent her meal telling me about her father and his friends. She even apologized for being so late and not calling. It was like everything was as it should be — or, had once seemed. There, sitting in the dining room, was the woman I had married. My best friend. My partner and confessor. The only woman I wanted to sleep with ever again. The love of my damaged life.
I worked on another wine. It would have been easy right there to confront her. I was more or less drunk. But I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a bra. That pretty much always turns me on.
In the dark, several hours later, I reached out and found the woman that was always surprisingly unfamiliar but so comforting and stirring. Her breasts seemed fuller than I remembered. She moved differently too, maybe. I ran my hand down her torso, the soft flesh of the girl of my dreams. In the dark, my needs took on a strange new flavor, caressed my throat, filled my chest with desire. I waited for her hand to reach out and begin: flat and warm, stroking my belly, the way she always began, for years and years and years: the slow snake down between my legs. I was harder than usual. That is no blasé statement for a man in his late fifties. She knew what it did to me to stroke and pull and squeeze until the throb of lust had converted my body, filled me with love and fear and need –made me vulnerable all at once. Our internal and external would swim together. She would push me on to my back and slide her leg across me. There would be that magical centering on top of me, no need for placement no need for hands. Too many years. So many years. She would ride me and ride us; our breath and our pleasure taking over the night. Lust inhaled from each other becomes all that matters, just for that few minutes, but it can also seem like it will never end. You both are all there is for each other – the centering of lovers together, their breathing, their moans, their pleasure.
That’s how it could be. That’s who we had been, privately, in our room for so many years. But it didn’t happen that way. After no more than a minute stroking my torso, she said, “Can we just cuddle. I don’t feel…”
That’s the way she left it. That’s the way she stopped me — everything left unsaid and impossible. I was being told not to feel all that I wanted. So, I tried to hold her. But it was dark and I was floating away, knowing what I didn’t want to know. Eventually, flopped myself onto my back and closed my eyes. It was a horrible feeling, but at the same time it was somehow comforting and relaxing, almost normal to know that I needed to figure all of this out on my own. It was time. This wasn’t the first marriage to traipse into a wilting garden of failure. How long had it been since I’d thought about anything and felt so purely alone?
What made the most sense there in the dark is that she might realize what she’d just done. What made the most sense is that she would roll toward me and at least try to continue to cuddle. She would ask me what was wrong, or tell me she was sorry, or something. But that didn’t happen either. Her breathing shifted within minutes. I don’t know if she was faking or had actually fallen asleep, but I lay there for hours listening to our bedroom’s air moving in and out of her body. Had she been faking, she would have drifted off anyway. I lay in the bed we shared, under the covers, deeper inside myself than the worst blues poem, lost in the darkness of a room in which all four of our kids were conceived. Our love had once been an uncontained glimpse of the true godliness of human beings on the earth, enjoying the pleasure of pleasures being together. Always together, knowing how lucky we were. Now I had proof that we had somehow become two separate people living in the same space. But in it all, I felt this common, simple sense of normality, almost as if I were protected from the worst of possible fates, because we had arrived back at normal – just two people in the universe. What the hell was that?
I was no different that next day than I had been for well over twenty years. I admit, however, to waking earlier than usual and remembering a sense of dread, feeling as if I’d been asleep in a deep old hole about to cave in at any moment. I was surrounded by striated layers of soil and clay and granite, veins of limestone and quartz shining through when I brushed crumbs of my life away, searching fruitlessly for something beautiful that I could show my wife.
I made coffee in the kitchen before anyone was up. Hannie came down in her soft T-shirt and pajama bottoms, stretching and yawning. She kissed me on the lips and held me without saying a word, her head against my chest. We stood like that for a long time in the middle of the room. All the supposition seemed to drift away. I’m not sure how much was just from the love we were giving each other in that silent week-beginning-morning and how much was truly just another day beginning and our slates, by habit, washed clean.
We busied ourselves getting ready for the day, making breakfast, getting the paper, waking the kids. I found myself thinking about work and a dentist appointment I had on Wednesday afternoon. There was a big soccer game that we both wanted to go to at school on Friday, and I had a vendor flying in from Hong Kong to demonstrate a new application that linked trading activity to inter-office communications and pertinent web articles. Hannie had a major presentation to a state agency as part of a short-list on a multi-year contract.
In the shower, I told myself that I was off base and stupidly paranoid. We were in our fifties for God’s sake. An affair? With who? What the hell was wrong with me? So she spent hours with her aging father on Sunday and was acting a bit odd about it all. Wouldn’t I be odd, too, if I had that to deal with (my parents had already left this world; my siblings had been the caregivers for each of them)?
Who knows, though? Maybe she had found someone right there at Willow Mountain. We weren’t that far in age behind some of them. That place had its fair share of handsome, interesting, widower men. They didn’t have to be wifeless, anyway. My God, she would be an incredibly desirable, nubile nymph to anyone there.
I wiped the fog from the mirror on the medicine cabinet and inspected my eyes, sagging from the weakness of crow’s feet and the weight of dark, circular bags of flesh. My cheeks were jowling, just like my eyes. My chin was filling up. I tried smiling. What came out was a version of sardonic futility full of slightly yellow teeth and overly red lips. I noticed hair sticking out of my nostrils, graying stubble and pock marks on my cheeks. There was also, of course, the little matter of my thin, receding hair. I tried smiling again, thinking about the difference between bald and balding, how this stage of life might still carry with it the power of verbs, while real old age just sprawled out into adjectives and adverbs. My expression could not shift above sardonic and futile. Word play is the last refuge of immaturity when you’re alone in the bathroom with a mirror and shower steam. I run, I talk, I cook, I work, I walk!
Wasn’t it all just some subtle trick my unconscious was playing on me? She was my girl. She wouldn’t step out on what we had. We’d made it through so much, watched too many friends’ marriages end over the years, listened to both sides of the story far too many times. We’d talked about those other endings driving home from parties, walking to the store for bacon and milk on the weekends, clucking happily, patting each other on the back for the luck we had and our happiness together. We’d gone to the Pocono Mountains for a three-day twentieth anniversary just a few years ago and discussed at dinner that first night, alone at a table near a window with a sunset in the distance, the power of our marriage and the joy of waking up to each other every morning. We’d made love in our room’s heart-shaped Jacuzzi that first night, slightly drunk, feeling like teenagers together. After breakfast in bed the next morning we went at it slow, standing in the middle of our room, front to front, rays from a hot winter sun streaming in through balcony windows, a view of the rolling mountains tumbling off into the distance.
By the time I found myself driving downtown, I had placed my paranoia on a shelf in the back of my mind, thinking instead about which servers and databases we needed to take off line, and who had still not been set up with the latest group printer app we’d spent a lot of money on.
By lunch, there wasn’t even a shelf for my paranoia. I was in the full swing of my daily grind. At 3:30 Hannie texted me and asked whether I needed her to pick up anything at the grocery store that I would need in order to make dinner. Just after four, our youngest texted that she was heading to soccer practice and would be home by six and “v hungy.” At just past 5:30, I was on the elevator heading for the basement parking garage.
That night I made steamed broccoli, a chicken tetrazzini casserole with, I admit, a canned mushroom soup sauce, and a cucumber-red pepper salad in yogurt poppy seed vinaigrette. After dinner, we sat around in the living room, all four of us, with our laptops, chatting, reading email, and watching Monday Night Football.
The next night it was NCIS. The following night it was all sitcoms – highlighted by Modern Family at 9:00. On Thursday, we watched a weird Dateline NBC about a man slowly poisoned by his wife. It turned out he was having an affair with a divorcee neighbor. The wife had used a tracking device to follow her husband’s daily routine on her cell phone. He would tell her he was going to work or even out of town and then drive four blocks away, park in back of a shopping mall and walk back to his paramour’s house.
I kept glancing over at Hannie during that show. I was careful. I didn’t want the kids to see me. I certainly didn’t want Hannie to see me. But I needed to know if she was twitching or shifting slightly at some crux moment of the show. Even a blink. Or a glance away, out the window. Maybe even eyes shot quickly in my direction.
Nothing. I couldn’t discern an iota of guilt or connection or familiarity. Nothing. She was simply watching a show about a sordid marriage and sad, sad, lonely people. The husband never caught on. He was kind of weak for a while then died in his sleep one night. The original cause of death had been a heart attack. It wasn’t until three years later that the wife broke down and admitted what she’d done. She’d gone to a private detective for advice on how to murder someone and not get caught. She’d made a lame excuse to the detective about a paper she was writing for law school. They’d interviewed the detective. He felt horrible for his part in the whole mess and kept shaking his head.
Dateline finally got around to running the interviews with the children. The daughter in particular, was devastated. She gave one of those patented, tearful Dateline descriptions of how much she thought her parents loved each other during her whole childhood.
What if Hannie had been poisoning me? Was that why she’d checked off all those detective companies in the Yellow Pages? What if I were to die in my sleep tonight, I thought? Would that be better than me poisoning her? If she poisoned me, at least she would be free to spend the rest of her life happy with her lover. I wouldn’t know a thing, of course, because I would have died in my sleep. But if I poisoned her, I would live in hell for the rest of my life whether they caught me or not.
A mixture of hatred and sorrow began to boil up in me. I really did need to ask what was going on. I needed, desperately, to confront her once and for all.
But nothing happened that night. I was afraid of what she’d say. It was much better to just let it all go, or to figure things out on my own so that she wouldn’t have to be part of my dilemma.
And yet, the following Sunday, I made my first attempt at pushing the limits. When she began to tell me about her plans for the day and going to see her father, I told her that I needed her to stay home and go over our financial records with me. She paused ever so slightly and said, again, that she needed to be with her father. I said I really wanted to get the finances in order so that I could start our taxes early — that night. We needed to do that for financial aid applications to Brown and Cornell. She got a bit testy and firm — too testy and firm — and wouldn’t hear of changing her plans. That dreamy look began to float into her face.
I let her go with no more argument. It didn’t take long to feel more desperate than ever. I went online and googled surveillance equipment companies. I also realized I could just tail her. I went to a blog administered by a group of husbands called CheatingWivesUnlimited and learned that the simplest thing to do was to leave your iPhone under the seat of her car and then to track it using the PhoneTracker app on your iPad or laptop. CheatingWives also offered links to surveillance equipment sites that provided special transponders and GPS gizmos to monitor people “like the pros.”
I realized another option would be to just innocently call my father-in-law and ask him a question. He and I had been close enough over the years — nothing like going on fishing trips together, but we talked baseball and football and always shared a laugh at family gatherings over funny things Hannie would say now and then. If I called, she might not be there. I’d have to be quick on my feet, but it wouldn’t be that hard to get him to give me the skinny on her timing. Or what if she hadn’t showed up at all? Would it be so simple as to say to Arthur, she said she was heading out there to visit you. She does that every Sunday. And what if he said, she doesn’t come visit me much at all? Or, oh, yes, she drops by for an hour or so every once in a while. I think it’s on the weekend. Maybe not. What are you supposed to feel when you hear something like that?
Supposition and suspicion are funny things. If you swim in them long enough, or if they swim in you long enough, the potency of possibly learning explicitly that your worst fears have been realized has the devastating effect of a nuclear bomb to the heart and one’s sense of whether true happiness is ever going to be possible. When you know beyond the shadow of a doubt how much you love a person and that the joy and happiness they share with you and their deepest personal traits are open only to you, but then you learn that they have a double life and may actually be sharing their private persona, that tender loving feeling they supposedly only give to you, death would be better. Senility would be better. A voluntary lobotomy might well be in order. Perhaps the pharmaceutical industry needs to do research into memory-clearing drugs. I’d take those if my wife left me. It’s not the actual finding out, it’s having to live for the rest of my days knowing that the woman I loved had betrayed us.
The easier my plan for figuring out the truth, the more dangerous the whole situation felt. Call Arthur? And what if I was right? It might make sense to buy a gun first.
Following her with my iPad would be the same simple means to a similar end. Unless, of course, say, she had a gambling addiction, and was actually heading out to the casinos the next county over.
Maybe the phone would track her to a mall where she had lunch and went to the movies by herself. Or to a state park where she went for a hike. Maybe she was volunteering at our SPCA or just taking a yoga class and then working out at a gym. The problem there is that looking at a little dot on a screen give very incomplete information. I wouldn’t know if she was meeting someone or just doing something on her own.
Following her made more sense. Done right, I’d get down to the bottom of things in a way that a GPS signal could not. Although, it hurt just to think of that — following my sweet Hannie when she thought she was alone and able to do anything from pick her nose to having a tryst with some asshole mother fucker who was more enticing than me and a more skilled lover – maybe younger, probably with a dick that stayed hard, who could hold out on his own orgasm and make her come like a circus in the summer.
Perhaps it wasn’t even a guy. That’s always a possibility. Every husband in America knows that and guards against it with all sorts of willful ignorance. Lesbian affairs for our wives are only hot until we realize that after children are brought into the world, our anatomies are superfluous and only just tolerable enough.
Hiring a detective still made the most sense. The problem, of course, is the cost – and being able to hide such an expense from a spouse. I did a rough calculation. It might take me about three months to syphon enough cash out of our family account into my personal savings in order to pay a detective to follow Hannie for, say, a month of Sundays.
Of course, all of these options carried the possibility of a severe reality that would annihilate my life — and Hannie’s. The kids were old enough, I told myself, to handle whatever came their way. But I knew good and well that was pure bullshit. No child of living parents, not even those of us all the way into our fifties, should have to handle the demise of their parents’ marriage through the crisis of adultery or philandering. The death of the first parent is one thing. The death of that bedrock love you believe in is quite another.
I might have let timidity be my guide had Hannie not started in with her Saturday sojourns. She just started disappearing. I would be in the backyard mowing the lawn or moving boxes into the attic. I would return to the kitchen for something or to make lunch and she would be gone.
“Hey, does anyone know where Mom went?”
“She said she was going out.”
“That’s what she said.”
“Dad! I’m not in charge of Mom!”
There was always an excuse when she returned. “I told you I was going shopping.” “Oh, I had a lunch date with Sonia Miles.” “Sorry. I tried to find you. I needed to go to the library.”
This was bad enough. But on most of these occasions she told me she needed to take a shower after. Sometimes it seemed she was being sneaky. The shower didn’t happen until a few hours later. She might go up to our room and work out with the Stair-Master. She might not say anything about bathing and just wait until I began to get dinner ready, or maybe I’d be watching baseball on TV. She would disappear and then reappear in a bathrobe, her hair all turbaned up, smelling of Dove body wash and Maxine’s Orange Pomegranate Shampoo.
My options were clear enough after a few months of these now random abandonments. I needed to know what was going on once and for all. I took a chance and called B&P Agency – the one not checked off by my wife. My appointment was to be with Charles Brownlee. I no longer gave a damn about a check to him being an indicator to anything.
Their offices were in the back of a strip mall that I passed several thousand times a year on Tournament Avenue. I gave Brownlee my sob story. He was a short black guy a bit younger than me, wearing a dark blue polo shirt, khakis, and top-siders. A weather-beaten black leather jacket hung on a hook behind his desk. Photos of sailing races lined his wall.
“I don’t like taking people’s money for this kind of thing,” he said quietly. “It’s true anything could be going on. Or nothing. If it’s what you think it is, though…” He reached out, picked up a pair of aviator sunglasses and began to play with them. “… you will be paying me a lot of money to receive very painful information that will pretty much destroy your life.”
“I know that, but what else can I do?”
He shook his head and stared down at his sunglasses. “Maybe think about this a bit more.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for months. It’s beginning to drive me crazy, this not knowing, not understanding. I mean, if my worst fears….”
He stared down at his glasses, then up at me. “In my experience,” he said slowly, “there is a certain kind of magic thing that pops up in the world from time to time for us because of the imagination. Look at these guys who have been successful in life. You know, that Steve Jobs guy? Henry Ford? Shoot, even Nelson Mandela. They succeeded because of their imaginations. That’s what art and music is all about. But at the same time the imagination can be deadly. I seen too many people like you sucked into serious shit. It just gets worse and worse and worse. You never get spit out until you die. Is that necessary? Do you want that?”
I waited for him to say more. He was right, of course. I understood that.
“I guess I’m asking you to release me from my imagination,” I finally said. I tried to smile sagely.
He peered at me a very long time, then said: “Look, I’ll do whatever you want. I’m just suggesting you think about this some more.” He held his glasses between his thumb and forefinger and spun them in a circle while he watched me. “You could actually just try talking to your wife, you know.”
“Have you really?” He flipped his glasses up and over the back of his hand several times. “Because if you had, I think you’d have your answer. I mean, women can be pretty sneaky at times, even cold and uncaring, but they don’t lie. They just don’t – except in the direst of circumstances. And that usually has to do with their children. Least ways, that’s my experience.”
“I’ve let this drag on too long,” I offered.
Brownlee held his eyes shut for a few moments and shook his head. When he opened them, he stared down at his glasses and looked surprised. “You maybe feeling a bit insecure? I mean, I don’t know why, but I’m pretty sure your wife is white from how you’re talking. Am I right? And you, well, you’re something else. What? Biracial maybe? Mixed? Something. That’s for sure.
This surprised me. “Most people….”
He put up his hand to stop me. “Yeah, don’t see it. I get that, too. But I seen it. Others do too, of course. Sometimes it’s nothing but that old fear coming out of nowhere. Sense that maybe she’d found some blue-eyed, light-haired, easy living, relaxed, buff success of a guy. Cute freckles. Maybe her first love from high school or college. Your gig’s up. She’s done with her exotic mama’s boy from the other side.”
He squinted at me and waited. He knew I hadn’t expected to hear words like that, and, to be honest, I know he understood what he’d just said hurt me and made me more self-conscious than I needed to be right then.
“See, what your imagination….” He stopped and put his sunglasses on, “…can do to you?” Shaking his head slowly, he reached up and rubbed his chin. I looked behind him at the photos of him sailing. The boats were big ones. They looked like what rich people call yachts. Who was this guy?
He seemed to read my mind. “That’s me with my daughter’s husband. Good kid. Successful. Runs a financial research firm. I’m still learning to race. He done it all his life.”
I nodded and tried to figure out where we were going with our conversation. Out of the silence I eventually asked, “I hear you on everything. I get it. What’s your advice though?”
He chuckled. “Think about it some more, man. What’s love worth to you?”
I left Brownlee’s office and drove around thinking. He was right, of course. The imagination is a simple and wonderful thing. You get through a lot of parenting using it. My vision for my kids was never going to come true. Nothing is ever so simple for those of us with more than one child. Having four is a major act of either hubris or stupidity. Still, parenting had been so much easier believing that my fantasies might one day come true.
And now I was being tortured by that same imagination. Maybe I just needed to tell her how I felt. It certainly didn’t make sense to tail her or, for God’s sake, pay a detective to investigate her. I could just check our phone bill and look for numbers she might be calling during the work day or on Sunday afternoons. What is the basis of love? Trust? Vulnerability? Openness? Honesty? Was I just insecure because of the difference between my background and hers? What the fuck had I been doing, letting this whole thing fester into shit hole land?
I was driving as I thought about all of that. I needed to go home, make dinner, have a few drinks, and then figure out how to get her alone so that we could talk. It would be simple enough. We could go for a walk. Or maybe a drive. If she had something to tell me that I couldn’t handle, then so be it. Brownlee could have said it to me. Maybe that’s what he meant by thinking about things a bit more. I had to grow a pair. I’d forgotten what it meant to be an adult in the world. We would use our imaginations together, and our love. It would all work out. It had to. We’d been at it too long. Whatever was going to happen, we would confront it and we would deal with it – I would deal with it.
But I didn’t go home. I hadn’t realized it until I was already there that I’d driven back into town and was parking in a garage. I got out of my car and walked to our favorite Chinese restaurant. I took my time ordering after they brought me a nice bottle of wine. On his third visit, I asked the waiter for two egg rolls, two bowls of their special emperor’s won-ton soup, and two orders of dim-sum. Then I asked for another wine glass. I don’t know why, but I’d decided to pretend she’d stood me up. Then I was going to eat both orders and maybe even have two desserts.
While I waited, I drank some wine and let frustration wash over me. My phone buzzed in my pocket. I turned it off and took several deep breaths. I knew how vulnerable I felt. Brownlee had seen that right away, heard it in my voice. He’d even seen it in my skin and those subtle differences in my face that had always been there.
I finished off my glass of wine, then reached across the table and picked up Hannie’s. The whole reason any of this was happening was because I still loved my wife. Hell, how many men did I know that might take her behavior as an invitation? There were several available women at work I flirted with – one in particular.
I laughed at myself, feeling the booze expanding to my extremities. I’d been thinking about love far more than I had in probably thirty-five years. And it all hurt like hell, just like back then in my teens. I wasn’t just vulnerable, I felt deceived and betrayed. My wife had possibly created a whole new life with someone else. Maybe she had decided to live both simultaneously. I took another sip of wine and picked up the menu again.
A bit more than an hour later, I pulled into our driveway and sat in the car wondering how to say all the things that needed to be said just the right way. Her car was in the garage. It would be easy enough to slip up and send the whole conversation into the sewer. It would be so easy, I figured, especially if she were guilty of something serious, to slide into that sewer and have it be the end of everything, just sliding and sliding at an endlessly downward angle.
I sat there gazing into the front window of our home as I turned my phone back on. It was completely dark by then. For once it was me who was late and unaccounted for. As I stared at our living room window, I saw the light go on and Hannie come into view, looking down at her phone. She kept popping her head up to glance out the window, then back down to her phone. A cascade of buzzing came from my phone as it finished rebooting.
Through the window, Hannie seemed to be texting someone. I watched her concentrate on the little thing she held in her hand; watched her face scrunch up, the slight pucker of her lips as she thought about what she was writing. She seemed quite vulnerable herself at that moment, standing there alone in the living room, using her thumbs to tap her screen. In the back of my mind I knew she might be texting a lover, or maybe just a fuck buddy. But that expression of vulnerability still touched me. What an amazing thing, I thought, to love your wife that much after all those years and to have it show up so naked and bald, writhing in agony all because of suspicion and my very own twisted imagination. What a surprise!
Maybe I didn’t think any of that. Maybe I just felt it.
My phone vibrated twice. I pulled it out of my jacket pocket. It was a text from Hannie:“Where r you? Am woories. It is kate. Czlld 7 or 8. Pls txt or czll ASP. u K?”
It is not true that you get one chance to love the right way in life. It is also not true that you get a chance everyday if you find the right person. What happens is that you start to love and you find that you can’t stop, but after a while, you kind of forget. If you’re a drinker, forgetting things is that much easier. That’s why you drink. But if it’s real love, it never leaves. It can’t. You’re stuck with it. Only you don’t know that until things really matter, because you made them that way.
There in the window was my Hannie, staring down at her phone. It looked like she was waiting for me to text back. It also looked like she was still feeling vulnerable and “woories.” A very slight unguarded look of hope wouldn’t leave that face as she stood in our living room with me watching from the other side in the darkness.
Finally, I texted back: “Am right here in the driveway watching at you. Brought Chinese. Hope the kids already ate. I love you so much. Do we need to talk?” Her face shot up from her phone. I will never forget that expression as long as I live.