“I began to cope with the hand Tag had dealt me. Once my surprise and the initial anger about his leaving wore off, I had varied reactions. At times his leave-taking struck me as cavalier. It smacked of grandiosity. He certainly had gained attention. The whole town was probably buzzing about it.”
May 22, 2003. The weather that afternoon was oppressive, the breeze through the open kitchen windows too gentle to cool me. I pulled a stool to the counter top in front of my computer. I was eager to check for email, some word from Tag.
He was in Albuquerque to play in a tennis tournament. I had urged him to take our cell phone. “Call me nightly, hon. I’ll want to know how your matches are going.”
Tag just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ll want to hear how you’re doing.”
I was playing my wife role, interested in my husband’s activities. I also sounded like a good mother.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he answered with a teasing laugh. It seemed a strange response, so detached. I felt hurt that he would have a phone and choose not to call, but I shrugged it off.
Two nights went by. No phone call, no messages. Twenty-four hours after he left, I was sure there would be one, but the answering machine remained at zero. He had the cell phone. Why wasn’t he calling?
The morning he left, our discussion at breakfast had centered around whether he would take Pebbles, our apricot-colored poodle mix. She had accompanied him to other tournaments and caused no commotion. Tag decided to take her. “She’ll be good companionship,” he said.
“Well, it’s not like you’re going to some deserted place,” I said. “There’ll be people in Albuquerque, right? Your doubles partner?”
Tag just smiled. Secretly, I felt elated that Pebbles was going with him. Five days without a hyperactive, neurotic animal to care for. Besides, Pebbles was always a steady date for Tag. A perfect girlfriend, always ready to go with him, never expecting phone calls or complaining.
I connected to the Internet with a sense of anticipation. Surely there would be a message by now, and sure enough, I saw that the inbox contained something from Tag, with no subject. Why would he need a subject? I knew where he was and what he was doing. I felt happy. He was checking in.
He’d been uncharacteristically affectionate the morning he left, suddenly wrapping his arms around me in a hug. I laughed in surprise. “Tagger,” I said, giggling like a schoolgirl. It felt good to have his arms around me. Then we both walked to the van. As the VW camper pulled out, I waved, amused at how perky and self-important Pebbles appeared in my seat, as though it were her rightful place.
He’d been uncharacteristically affectionate the morning he left, suddenly wrapping his arms around me in a hug. I laughed in surprise. “Tagger,” I said, giggling like a schoolgirl. It felt good to have his arms around me.
I ran a cool glass of water from the tap. Then I settled myself to read the message. It was a long one. Lots of news. It was atonement time, I thought, and he was making up for his silence.
My dear Martha,
Please read this carefully.
Oh, my, how formal. How patronizing. Insulting really, as though he were instructing a child.
I write this, having passed Albuquerque, and come to Tucson. I will spend some time here.
I began to feel woozy. Tucson? He was supposed to be in Albuquerque. What the hell was he doing in Tucson? He’d never mentioned Tucson.
The time has come, I think, to do something we discussed, Martha, some time ago—separating for a while.
Separating! My stomach shifted, as if the bottom had dropped out. What was he talking about? That was two years ago, when he’d threatened to go off in the van by himself. It had never happened.
We of course have discussed aspects of my dissatisfaction at home. Companionship and lack of mutual interests are central issues.
Our parenting styles are different.
Yes, we seldom saw eye-to-eye on how to raise Naomi. That was understandable, for we had seen very different styles from our own parents.
My interest in sports and travel, yours in books, writing, piano.
Yes, we did have different interests. But wasn’t that okay?
I like to watch TV, you don’t.
But how could he watch those programs for eight continuous hours?
Our disappointing sex life.
Sex life? What sex life?
These difficulties had been years in the making, a part of our lives for decades. Why mention them now?
I reached into the water glass, wetting my fingers and rubbing my forehead, steadying myself against the edge of the counter. The apple tree we had planted outside the window started waving in and out of focus. I couldn’t breathe.
I didn’t bring this up during the past several weeks.
Perhaps he had thought I couldn’t handle it, not with the concert I was preparing for.
But there is no good time for this. I think you will understand my writing this to you.
I didn’t understand. How could I possibly understand something like this? An email? How could he do this by email? Where was the man I’d married, the promising young architect to whom I had given my life? How had he become such a coward?
I am like you, unable to think on my feet very well. I much prefer to be careful in what I say, how I say it.
Well, he got that right. I’m a careful person too. But why hadn’t he said anything when we were in the kitchen before he left? He was eating cereal, and he never said a word. I was standing right there.
The last thing I want is to say something to cause anger.
Anger? When was anger ever part of our relationship? We never even fought.
You have always run an organized household. I think you are a wonderful person. I only wished our interests and concerns overlapped. So we might participate in them together.
I had heard this litany many times before. What else was new?
In my own home I am a lonely person.
Was that my fault? Was I inadequate? He shouldn’t lay that on me. That wasn’t fair. Did he feel lonely with Pebbles?
My weariness turned to dread. Was I being fired? I wanted to hold my head under cool running water.
I’m not sure where I will be. Probably in Arizona and southern California, camping and at tennis tournaments. Your finances will remain under the same income structure. You should be able to manage.
Was this a business letter? How was I supposed to manage for the whole summer when it wasn’t even June yet? When I couldn’t even breathe.
I hope that after reflecting, you will understand this. I need to be away to try to make some sense of what lies ahead.
This was a love letter?
I fired off my response.
How am I supposed to handle this? I’m going to need some help. How long have you had this “plan”? I feel so shaky, like someone has died.
Then I corrected my typos—my hands were so jumpy—and clicked send.
How was I going to get through the rest of the day? I had to be somewhere by five o’clock. I needed to shower and dress.
As I scrubbed myself, I wished the warm water would wash the message away, send it right down the drain. No matter how hard I rubbed, I still felt dirty.
Was our marriage only a myth? Was it finished? I was being discarded like a rag doll with a faded face and tattered dress. No, more like violated. Raped and thrown on a heap of trash.
What were we supposed to tell people? What would they think? Now lit with a searchlight, the marriage was there for the whole world to see. Somehow, my entire life was coming down to this moment.
As I dried myself, I realized I sounded as detached as Tag. I couldn’t cry. Dazed, I threw on a nondescript blouse and white pants. I ran a comb through my hair and put on lipstick, all the makeup I ever wore. I was ready.
I had a bridal shower to go to.
* * *
What does one give to a sixty-five-year-old bride? I’d wondered that when I received my invitation to my friend’s party. At the time, the gift had been my only dilemma. Now my marriage was falling apart.
I had never been to the home of the hostess. It was in the hills above Hondo, the village five miles up the highway toward Colorado. All I had was a scrap of paper with the directions I’d scribbled during my RSVP call to the hostess.
The drive to the party seemed surreal. At the top of the rise above Hondo, I turned off the pavement onto the county road. Then an unexpected fork appeared. I chose the branch that seemed most traveled. It soon became sinuous, twisting under a canopy of trees. As the curves multiplied, my anxiety grew.
How absurd was this, attending a bridal shower when I had just been jilted by my husband. I felt ashamed and rejected. I also felt as if I were traveling through a Dalí painting, the one with the melting clocks.
How absurd was this, attending a bridal shower when I had just been jilted by my husband. I felt ashamed and rejected. I also felt as if I were traveling through a Dalí painting, the one with the melting clocks. I had a sense of being unmoored, a castaway in some netherworld where I recognized no guideposts, no familiar markers. Feeling lost on this winding road provided an unwelcome metaphor for how I felt about my life. All I could be sure of was that I lived in Taos, New Mexico. I was a wife. Or was I? I used to be. I was definitely a mother. I was sixty-five years old, eligible for Medicare and Social Security, on track for a comfortable life as a senior, not derailment.
Thick intertwined branches hung over the deserted road. I took heart when I passed an occasional modest home. This was a neighborhood at least. The house I was looking for was here somewhere.
Suddenly, I was surprised to see a friend out walking. I waved and slowed down to keep from raising too much dust. I was so numb that I didn’t think to ask directions.
I got lost several times. Each time I retraced my route, returning to that fork to reassure myself that the road I’d selected was clearly the principal one. Go slowly, I told myself as I made one more attempt in what felt like an out-of-body experience.
It worked. I discovered the obscure right turn into a narrow driveway that led up, up, up to a territorial-style house. Cars parked helter-skelter confirmed the party site.
From the front seat I grabbed my present for the bride-to-be. A box of chocolates. What kind of gift was that?
Some of the guests at the party knew me. I felt so counterfeit, engaging in superficial social conversation.
I did what the others did as we awaited dinner—walked up the narrow path to the pergola, a viewing perch for the valley below. A porch swing was hanging from the pergola’s trellised roof. I sat down beside a stranger but got up when the motion of the swing made me sick.
Back in the house, I stood with others in the buffet line, but I don’t remember what I put on my plate. I moved whatever it was around with my fork as I sat with the other guests, chattering about summer plans, scheduled camping trips, the newlyweds’ honeymoon. This small talk also made me feel sick.
After the meal, we sat in a big circle in the living room. I felt so separate from the group. No doubt everyone thought I was all in one piece, but of course I wasn’t. My body parts were scattered all over the place. Blood everywhere. Blown to smithereens.
If I appeared all right, it was because I was on automatic, going through the motions, feigning happiness about my friend’s approaching marriage while seeing red flags in my own.
The pretty honoree, surrounded by gifts, was the focal point. Her face was lit with expectation. In six weeks she was to marry her sweetheart from junior high, a second marriage for both. She was beginning married life—again. There was much laughter amid the chatter as the frilly nighties and sweet-smelling bath products were unwrapped. My box of chocolates was not nearly as impressive. I managed to laugh with the others at the honeymoon jokes, but my laughter had a rueful edge. I wanted to cry out: “Think carefully about what you are doing! Is this a wise move?” The whole party was making me weary. It felt so old-fashioned. It took me back to my own bridal shower, forty-two years earlier. Did anyone give me lacy panties then? I didn’t remember. I’d been too caught up in the thrill of becoming Tag’s bride to remember anything.
After the gifts were opened, the hostess stood up to get attention. She held out a medium-sized leather-covered book. “We’ll pass around this blank book,” she said. “Each of you take a page and write something to the groom, something he needs to know. Anything at all will do.”
Then she passed the book to the nearest guest. The room became quieter.
At last it came to me, and I opened it to the first clean page. I didn’t read what others had written. I was trying to concentrate on what I would say. What did the groom-to-be need to know?
I looked at the blank sheet of paper and focused on the middle of it—I wanted to use it all. Then I took a deep breath, and wrote three words:
Let her grow.
“I am in awe of your courage at revealing so much about your marriage, your relationship with Naomi, the intimate intricacies of family dynamics. That was before I read the last section, in which you just jumped off the page and into the even more turbulent waters… of sex, love, and theater…Your final story about you singing… ’Come Rain or Come Shine’ in the play…with the lights –out thunderstorm, brought tears to my eyes, and it just pulled the whole book, your whole story, together with one fell swoop. Congratulations on that magical accomplishment…”