One moment Sarah was calmly sitting on the edge of the bed, talking on the phone with a sobbing friend, and in the next moment her own world was in danger. She had purposefully sought out this quiet room for an extended solitary time for a solitary conversation, closing the door behind her, in what she thought was a clear message to her husband.
The door burst open, and Alan charged across the room to her desk and began ruffling through piles of papers. At first, she was simply irritated with the invasion, but then she realized with sudden alarm that she’d forgotten to put the letter away. On the other end of the phone Susie was wailing.
Sarah covered the receiver with her hand. “What are you doing?” she hissed at Alan.
He was indignant. “Where are those damned forms for the vehicle emissions test? I asked you to find them days ago.”
“Just wait a minute!” she hissed again. Her heart was pounding.
Susie interrupted herself with sobs and nose blowing. “It’s not just that I still love him. Of course I do. Even though we’re not together anymore. But if he dies, what will happen to me? I’ll be cut off from benefits, from his pension.”
“Oh Susie I am so sorry! No wonder you’re so upset.” She looked pointedly over at her husband. “She’s upset, Alan!”
Alan ignored her and continued searching, turning piles upside down, shifting pages uselessly from one spot to another.
“Alan, please! I’ll look in a few minutes.” She was feeling sick. She had no idea where the emissions test papers were, that wasn’t the problem. She couldn’t remember where she’d put the letter.
Susie was saying, “Remember we didn’t get the divorce so I could still get the health benefits. My medication is so expensive I can’t possibly pay for –”
“Alan why do you have to have it just this second?” She hadn’t expected this. He was always respectful of her things, of her privacy. He never went through anything at her desk. Now, even worse, he was opening drawers and flipping through the contents, and now he’d moved on and was going through the pile beside the computer monitor.
He frowned over at her, “Sarah, I want to get this done today, I told you I need it.”
The letter. She had written it a hundred times in her head, going over the content, rehearsing the tone she wanted. What did she want to say? Certainly not that he was haunting her after so many years of peace, his image appearing next to her crystal collection, or suddenly at the window. No, the letter was just an exploration, just to say “Hello, how are you? Who are you?”
She would not say, “We would have celebrated 40 years of marriage this month. Did you remember? Do you ever think of those few years with me? Do you remember that little Triumph convertible we had and how we’d drive around with the top down, with the wind blowing in our hair, the dog on my lap. And every night we went down the Kitsilano Hill the few blocks to the ocean to race the dog in and out of the waves, and watch the sun go down.
Do you remember the time you drove that car right up on the sidewalk to the steps so I wouldn’t get wet in the rain? That’s what won me back to you for a while. Did I ever tell you that?”
And Susie went on, “That hussy! He’s living with that hussy who is sleeping with another woman’s husband! And he bought her a big new house.”
Sarah keeping only one ear on the conversation and was puzzled. “She’s sleeping with another woman’s husband?”
“Mine!” said Susie, even more indignant. And the tears started again.
“How do you know he bought her a house?”
“Well, it’s in Southampton. Everyone knows where they’re living. It’s so humiliating!”
Sarah made sympathetic noises as she watched Alan warily.
She knew if Alan found the envelope, he would never open it, but the name and address would be enough. He would be devastated. And he would never understand. Or maybe he would understand, and that would be worse.
She and Alan didn’t talk very much. He was the steady and stalwart type. He’d been predictable, reliable and faithful, the perfect antidote to the craziness of her last marriage. She’d settled into it, like putting her feet on bedrock after floundering in quicksand. They never talked about their previous marriages. It was as if they had been completely different people those years ago, not even them at all.
Alan had told her more about his cat than about his first wife, and even that wasn’t very much. His cat had a habit of jumping up to the chess board and knocking over one pawn every night. Just one. That was the extent of what she had learned about his domestic life. She learned nothing at all about how or why the marriage broke down.
And her own first marriage?
She’d been so young, so in love. Harry was a wild person, full of life, full of daring and sassiness, rudeness and laughter. He was gregarious, a man’s man, a ladies’ man, and in the end, not her man. He fooled around.
Memories wove through her life. The distinctive odour of his hair! When they were young his hair was short and bristly, but already receding. She wondered if his scalp smelled differently now. The smell was raw and earthy, perhaps with a touch of locker room, even after a fresh shampoo. Locker room – yes, the rank smell of his hockey bag – she recalled those dark late nights when she went to cold arenas to watch him play.
There was so much she wanted to ask him, “What’s your life like? I know you have sons. How do you get along? What do you look like now? Did you lose all your hair? Are you still wild and fun? Did you betray all your wives after me?”
And in her heart she hoped he had.
It was easy to blame him for it all, to be the poor betrayed victim. Taking that position felt comfortable for years, but lately she was remembering her own chafing within the marriage.
She could hear a counselor’s words in her ear, “And what was your part in that?”
Had she been too busy at school, studying every night? Were their interests just too different?
She’d been so hurt that he wasn’t dedicated to her, puzzled by his distant behaviour. that she really hadn’t known him at all. She’d expected the rite of marriage to somehow make them a new unit like when cells join. Magic. But it seemed they were less of a couple than before making the vows. He railed against the constraints, pushed against her.
And then her own restlessness set in. She had not been settled. She began to wonder how much of that spilled over and affected their closeness.
She had written to him many times in her head, driving to work, putting on her makeup, zipping up her boots, trying to sleep. He dogged her, an image or a sound or an odour appearing when least expected, least welcome. She wanted to put that to rest.
When she finally sat down to write the letter, she’d had to measure every word. “Hello, how are you, tell me about your family.” Most of all she wanted to apologize. She’d blamed him all these years. Only him. Finally, she’d realized she’d had a part in it too.
Stillness settled into the room. Alan had stopped searching and turned to look at her, holding the envelope in his hand. Steady Alan, quiet, conservative, dogmatic, silent Alan. Her rock.
She saw the look in his eyes.
Oh, God. What had she done? What had she done to him? Her heart sank.
“Susie, can I call you back?”
Susie spluttered objections.
Sarah placed the receiver down and turned to face her husband.
Sheila Eastman is a busy grandma of four, often babysitting (playing) since three of the babes arrived 20 months ago. She’s been a part of Brian’s classes for a long time, has learned so much, and treasures the deadlines that help with completion. With Covid, her in person activities switched to Zoom, including writing class, piano lessons, and leading a group in meditation and exercise every morning. She has a short attention span and writes short stories.
See Brian Henry’s upcoming weekly writing classes, one-day workshops, and weekend retreats here.