Some marriages grind to a halt; two tired people lock down into a final frozen position like the wheels of rusty gears that refuse at last to mesh again. Other marriages, like mine, blow apart mid-flight, torn asunder by forces larger than themselves, viewers watching numbly as the networks broadcast the final surreal seconds over and over again.
When they finally arrive, at ten after five, Natalie clomps up the front stairs first in her soccer cleats. She wants to know if she can watch Arthur. As I nod yes to her and she scrambles upstairs, I stare at Kevin. I'm thinking that if I stare hard enough I might be able to see right through him to the secrets he's been keeping, but I can't. A poker face, they call it. He's trained himself to bluff and not show it--at the card table and with me.
"We need to talk," I say in an ominous tone, hoping I can scare a confession out of him. But I've grossly underestimated how long and how deeply he's held this secret, and how determined he is to hang onto it.
We walk back into our daughters' room and I close the door. I sit on the desk chair and he perches on the bottom bunk. Behind him, pensive fairies in gossamer gowns float by on the wallpaper, a persistent promise of security from a world where picking a cabbage rose is the tallest order of the day. Wallpapering the girls' room was the first thing we did four years ago when we bought this hundred-year-old house.
"I think you have something to tell me," I begin.
"No, I don't," he says quickly.
This seems like a strange and suspicious reply. Wouldn't an innocent person say something more like, "What in the hell are you talking about?" I notice that there are very dark circles under his eyes. I realize now that I've seen them before but not registered them, in that peculiar way you can see but not register changes on those faces you know exceedingly well, like your own or the face of the person to whom you've been married for more than a decade.
I confront him with the withdrawal from the bank and he denies knowing anything about it. His face, though, looks ashen and drawn, and suddenly I realize that my hunch is right. I know too that there's a lot more to this--more than I want to know.
I know that he remembers what I said to him five years ago, when I opened a credit card bill for $5,000 he'd secretly gambled away. I was pregnant with our younger daughter, Jessica, then, and I told him that was the last time I could endure a break in trust. If it happened again, I said, I would have to get a divorce.
How did we get to this desolate place? How did I lose this person who once was my closest friend?
I decide to bluff. "The woman at the bank said that when they run the fraud report, they can bring up photos from the ATM. They'll be able to tell who used my card last Sunday at midnight."
He holds his breath for a second and then says, "Okay, so big deal. I took the money from your account."
I look at him, trying to record these new facts: A few nights ago he waited for me to go to sleep, went downstairs, took the bank card from my purse, drove to the bank, entered my PIN number, withdrew the hundred dollars, came home and returned the card to my purse, and went to sleep beside me.
I can't. And I can't believe that this is the person I'm married to. But some part of me knows it's true and knows that there's more bad news ahead. She's the one who says, "You're gambling again."
He admits that he is, but he won't admit the details or how much he's lost. It will be days before I learn that he has charged tens of thousands of dollars we don't have to charge cards I know nothing about, that the cards are stashed in the glove compartment of his car and the bills sent to another address, and by then he will be holed up in a motel a few miles away, never coming back to live in our house again. In fact, he will be gone before I even have time to absorb what has happened, even before the juice from the thigh of the chicken "no longer runs pink," to quote one of my favorite cookbooks.
At 6 p.m., with the September sun on the wane, the roasted chicken--burnt rosemary stems like black twigs now scoring the breast--sits neglected on the counter. The chicken feeds only one person that night--our nine-year-old daughter, Natalie. I'm not hungry anymore. In fact, the chicken looks strangely unfamiliar, a dinner dropped into my kitchen by aliens, perhaps.
Our five-year-old daughter, Jessie, says she won't eat a chicken that looks a chicken but would possibly eat five chicken nuggets from the box in the freezer. For once, I don't argue, "But all this good food is going to waste." The waste has already happened. I take the red box from the freezer, pluck out five tawny nuggets and place them on a plate, heat them for forty-seven seconds in the microwave, and set them with a fork and napkin in front of Jessie, who believes that her father has gone to meet a friend downtown and that the two of them will be leaving tonight on an impromptu car trip. It is a ludicrous story. A last-minute trip with a friend who lives two thousand miles away but has, apparently, just arrived downtown unexpectedly? Yet the children believe me, and I hate myself a little already. "Dad will come home in a week," I tell them. But I know he won't. He won't ever come home.
How did you lose your husband? I ask myself.
At first slowly and then all at once.
Reprinted from the book HOW TO SLEEP ALONE IN A KING-SIZE BED by Theo Pauline Nestor. Copyright © 2008 by Theo Pauline Nestor. Published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Read more of this story in How to Sleep Alone in a KIng-Size Bed.
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