“So what’s new? How’s the studying going?” Sarah asked, slumping back on the park bench next to me with a sigh. We sought shelter from the oppressive Midwestern summer day under the shade of a big oak tree. At least in the shade it was a good five degrees cooler, but still, it barely took the edge off the sweltering heat.
A warm gust of wind blew, teasing us with relief, but instead, it felt more like someone opening an oven door. It took my breath away as a bead of sweat slowly trickled down my back. The wind whipped Sarah’s long, wavy, light brown hair against her cheek, and she reached up to tuck it behind her ear. My dark hair was pulled back so it wasn’t a nuisance. It was funny admiring her thick locks now. Sarah had spent her youth getting perms trying to get the waves that I had naturally when we were little. But as I grew up, my hair straightened, and Sarah’s, with each child she had, got wavier and wavier.
Looking on, something about her seemed different today—I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. After a few fleeting thoughts, I figured she was probably just tired; she did have two little boys to run after all day long. I bet that could pretty much wear anyone out. I turned and smiled out as we kept a watchful eye over my nephews.
“Really well,” I said. At the time I was in the middle of law school, and every waking hour of my life was spent with my nose buried in a book. “But, I have some exciting news.” I was practically bursting out of my skin—nothing ever felt real until I shared it with my big sister.
“I met someone.” I smiled.
“You did? That’s great.” She smiled back, but it lacked its sincerity. I waited for the follow-up questions she would normally ask, but when they didn’t come, I offered up the details.
“Yep. I went with my study group to a bar a couple of weeks ago. This guy walked right up and asked me to dance. His name’s John—he’s in advertising. We’ve gone out a couple of times already, and he’s been calling me a lot. I’ve got a feeling about him.”
“Oh yeah? That’s great,” she said, forcing another weak smile.
I looked directly at her. “Ok, that’s two that’s greatsand two fake smiles. What’s up with that? I just told you about a new guy, and this is all you’re giving me? Come on!” I gave her my wide-eyed grin, but that was when I noticed tears welling in her tawny eyes. “Umm…I’m just teasing you.”
“Sember, I think something’s wrong?” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“I think he’s cheating on me,” she said.
“Who? Anders?” I said. Sarah and Anders had met on the night of Sarah’s twenty first birthday. He wasn’t handsome in the traditional sense, but what he lacked in the looks department he made up for with charisma. It had been a whirlwind romance, and after dating for three years, he’d proposed. They’d been together for thirteen years, and the thought of him cheating was completely absurd. “No way. Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know…something’s going on, and I don’t know what else it could be. He’s being so mean to me and he’s never home anymore.”
“Well,” I said, “he has been laying the foundation for his business.” Anders had invested many years in college trying to nail down his specialty. He’d spent his career working for other people, but after graduating law school, he finally started his own business law practice. “He’s worked his whole life to get where he is. I’m sure it’s stressful, and he just doesn’t want to fail,” I said.
“Maybe. He has gotten all kinds of new clients and the money is rolling in,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. We sat silently for a couple of minutes, watching the boys playing in the mulch around the swings. “And,” she said, “he has been really busy—he even tried to get me to quit teaching and to come work for him.”
“He did?” I said. “But you love your job.”
“I really do which is why I’m not doing it,” she said. “And besides, I’m not interested in working in a law office, or for my husband for that matter. I love teaching and molding all those little first grade minds. I’d miss it too much.”
“I’m sure he could understand that,” I said.
“No.” She laughed. “We actually got into a huge fight, and he said I wasn’t supporting him, and then he insulted my job. He said I only worked part effing time anyway, and he couldn’t understand why it would be such a big deal.”
“Part time?” I said, shocked. Any teacher would be offended by that statement.
“I get my summers off so he sees that as part time. I got upset and started to cry so he stormed off and locked himself in his office. But when he came out later, he acted like the fight never happened. It was bizarre. I just don’t know what’s going on with him.”
“He probably realized he was being an ass and let the subject drop. And, it sounds like a classic case of stress to me. It can make people do crazy things,” I said. “I cry a lot when I get overwhelmed. Maybe this is his way of coping.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But then I made him his favorite dinner later that night to try to smooth things over and he said he wasn’t hungry then started going off about looking for a bigger house.” She stared out blankly, confused. “He pounded on the kitchen cabinets and yelled at me. He said I’d be happy living in our ‘crappy little house’ on our ‘crappy little street’ for the rest of my life. I had no idea where any of it was coming from.”
I gasped. “Well, that doesn’t sound like him. I thought you both loved that house.”
“I do. And we’ve put so much work into it. Dad spent two years building all those cabinets in the kitchen, and it was our first place together and where the kids were born. It would break my heart to leave. But he said we need to ‘live near people of our status’…whatever that means.”
“Ok,” I said. “That does sound a little weird, but I still can’t see him cheating on you. Sounds like his business is really taking off so it has to be stress…or a mid-life crisis. His dad just died, and they were really close. And he just turned forty, too. It’s a lot of stuff to process,” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “At least he’s only been travelling three days this week, and he’s supposed to be home tonight, but he’s usually gone five to six days in a row now. He’s being really secretive about where he’s staying, too, and sometimes he doesn’t even call home to talk to the kids…let alone me.”
“That has to be really hard on you.”
“With all the activities he keeps signing the kids up for and with me teaching, I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off. When he’s not here, it’s really tough.”
“And did I tell you he’s taking French lessons? He said it’s so he can communicate with one of his new clients.” She looked down and swallowed a lump building in her throat. She blinked back tears just as her oldest son, Will, came running across the yard.
“Mommy! Did you see me! I made it all the way across the monkey bars without letting go. I did it!” he said.
She forced a smiled. “Darn it! I missed it,” she said with a shaky voice. “Show me again, and I’ll keep my eyes on you the whole time. Make sure your brother isn’t eating the mulch, ok?” He nodded his head and ran back off. She looked out in his direction but with vacant eyes.
“Sarah, he’s got a lot going on and marriages have ups and downs. Remember the fights Mom and Dad had when we were growing up. Dad bought a motorcycle during his mid-life crisis. Mom practically lost her mind every time he drove off on it. But, when he came to his senses a year later, he sold the bike and normal life resumed. I’m sure it’s the same thing—just a little rough patch. Give it some time and I’m sure it’ll blow over.”
“I hope you’re right,” she whispered. “I’m hoping we can talk tonight when he comes home.” A ding came from her pocket. She reached in and grabbed her phone. When she read the screen, her eyes filled with tears again.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He said he’s not coming home tonight.”
Two years later…
I’ve always had a pretty concrete vision of what I wanted. My dad always said I was as determined as an ant building an ant hill, even back in the days when I colored with crayons and climbed trees. I’d work and work until my picture was perfect, and I’d climb and climb until I reached the top of the tallest tree; I never stopped until I thought I’d achieved the best result. And somewhere early on, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. Maybe it was from watching early episodes of L.A. Law with my mom when I was little, and the seed was planted, but, as far back as I can remember, that was what I always wanted to be. My plan was to become a lawyer, get married and, when the time came, add a couple of children to the equation.
At twenty eight, my ducks were in a row. I graduated law school at the top of my class, passed the bar on my first try, and landed my job at the prestigious family law firm of Alexander, Richards, and Williams in downtown Cincinnati. After meeting John, I moved in with him after only a few months of dating. Life was grand, and I hoped a marriage proposal was right around the corner.
In the bathroom, I finished washing my face and was patting my skin dry. I called to John. “You coming to bed?”
“Yeah…in a sec. I just want to catch the end of this game,” he said.
“Come back here and join me. I want to lay with you for a little before I fall asleep.” I took my long chestnut hair down and fluffed it then pinched my cheeks for a touch of natural rouge. I leaned into the mirror and swiped the remnants of my black mascara out from under my eyes. Slipping between the sheets, almost naked, I heard him huff in the next room then toss the remote on the side table next to the couch. When he walked through the door, he went past me and straight back to the bathroom. I waited patiently, knowing the surprise that I had waiting for him. He was normally the aggressor in our relationship, and I rarely initiated sex, but I needed him tonight.
I’d had a tough day because my sister Sarah had had a tough day. Sadly, a little over a year ago, Sarah caught Anders on the phone with another woman, and it confirmed her suspicions. As the story unfolded, she learned that Anders had cheated during their entire relationship with numerous women. She was completely devastated, and was having a difficult time getting herself and her kids through the break-up. She briefly tried to salvage her marriage but eventually, when she saw it was hopeless, filed for divorce. Since then, a river of problems had rushed her way.
Although I was happy to help Sarah in any way I could, starting my career and listening to her troubles wore on me. John listened to some of my stories, but he said he couldn’t relate to the problem. And, somehow whenever I did share something with him, I always felt worse about it afterward. Knowing the right thing to say when I was in need wasn’t one of his strong suits.
He worked for a big ad agency and was under his own lot of pressure. He called it a rat race, and said if he let his guard down for even one second, someone would gladly be nipping at his heels waiting to take his place when he fell. So, I kept Sarah’s divorce mostly to myself. We both could have used some relief.
He shut the lights off in the bathroom and walked around the bed. He stripped down to his boxers and got under the covers. I assumed my position on his bare chest and waited for him to notice my absence of clothing. He put his arm around my shoulder then leaned over for the remote. Somehow he hadn’t noticed. Sometimes he could be dense and practically needed to be beaten over the head. So, I slid my hand over the soft curves of his stomach and underneath the waistband of his boxers.
“What’s going on with you tonight?” he said with a laugh.
“Nothing. It’s just been awhile, and I’ve had a tough day. Sarah’s been—”
He sighed. “I thought you were tired?”
“I am, but not that tired. We’ve both been under a lot of pressure, and I miss you.” I scratched my nails up his side and nibbled on his ear lobe.
“Not tonight, sweetheart.”
I exhaled. “Really?” I said and rolled off him. “That’s not the reaction I was hoping for.”
“Oh, come on. I didn’t mean it like that.” He turned on his side and patted my stomach. “I just need to watch this game. We have an account we’re trying to land, and their current agency’s spots are on during this game. I need to know what we’re up against. He gave me a raise of his brows and a sly grin. “Can I have a rain check?”
I smiled to hide my irritation. “Fine.”
“You’re the best. Love you,” he said and pecked my cheek.
“Love you too.” I got out of bed and slipped on a t-shirt, and shortly after, I nodded off while John finished watching his game. And that was that.
When Friday came around, I looked forward to getting a head start on my weekend. Bernie Alexander, my boss, had given me the okay to go home early. I wanted to surprise John with the passionate evening I’d imagined earlier in the morning. He rushed out early only giving me a chaste kiss on the cheek. With everything we had going on, we desperately needed to spend some quality time together.
As I drove along the highway singing one of my favorite tunes, I went through my plans. I was going to take a hot shower, put on some sexy lingerie, and slip into my highest heels to heighten my five foot five frame. Then I would lightly perfume my body with my newest Jo Malone perfume that John had given me for Christmas. I’d loosely curl my hair like it was the night we met; he always said he loved it like that. I was going to add subtle hints of cream eye shadow to enhance my light brown eyes. And, there would be no rain checks tonight.
After stopping by our local wine shop to pick up a six pack of John’s favorite beer and a bottle of my favorite red, I opened the door to our condo. When I walked in, I heard movement off to my left in the family room. It was too early in the day for John to be home, so immediately, I assumed we were being robbed. I bravely inched my way in and looked for something I could use as a weapon. But, when I turned the corner, I was shocked when I saw the back of John’s head. His sandy brown hair, that was usually so perfectly coiffed, was ruffled and the muscles on his soft, naked body were tensed as he pounded into a woman from behind.
It felt like someone had let all the air out of my lungs. In a flash, I assessed this home wrecker and tried to see what could make him choose her over me. Her long, bleached blond hair had at least one inch of black roots, and her shellacked, hot pink fingernails clung to the edge of our brown leather couch as she braced herself against his abuse. The folds of her stomach hanged loose, and her tits swayed while she moaned his name. I was stunned. There was—and could not be—a valid explanation.
Then, he uttered words too vulgar to repeat, and it yanked me out of my stupor—he never spoke to me like that. This wasn’t my John. I continued watching in horror as he thrust himself into her. The burn of my bile itched at my throat, staring at the ripples forming on her toneless white thighs.
Briefly, I thought maybe I could walk out— pretend I didn’t just see it—but it wasn’t a possibility. My cheeks flushed with rage, and I threw my keys on the table next to the door to get their attention.
“Sorry to interrupt John, catch you at a bad time?” I asked. My hands began to shake as I struggled to restrain myself from launching at his throat.
Their heads snapped up, and John instantly disengaged.
“Sember,” he said, grabbing his shirt to cover his glistening penis. Then he stepped in front of her naked body—a gesture to preserve her dignity—and I choked back a laugh. The woman quickly ducked behind the couch and grabbed for her clothes. She dressed quickly, throwing her wrinkled sweater over her head and zipped into her snug casual black slacks. Her bra dangled from her wrist as she grabbed her shoes.
“I thought you said she wouldn’t be home,” she whispered to John. But, he only gave her a confused look. So, she grabbed the rest of her things and edged her way past me then scurried out the door. I listened as her bare feet slapped the pavement outside.
John stood with his mouth open; I assumed trying to come up with the right words. Finally, he said, “It’s not what it looks like.”
I actually laughed. Truly. His career was built on coming up with tag lines on the spot, and that was the best he could produce. I always assumed he was successful and great at advertising, but maybe the stress he’d been experiencing at work was justified.
“Look…I didn’t think you’d be home this early,” he said.
I took a deep breath and gathered my composure. “You didn’t think I’d be home this early? Did you just say that? I’m sorry, I must have heard you wrong.” I waited for a response while he threw on his crumpled clothes, but he said nothing. “How about I’m sorry? That’s where I’d start if I were you.”
He sat on the couch and groaned. “It didn’t mean anything. She works for the account we’re trying to win. I had to do it.”
“You had to have sex with another woman?” I stared in disbelief.
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” he said, shaking his head.
Any words I could have said, planted themselves firmly in my throat. I felt like I was in a trance, watching someone else’s life. My feelings were all over the place: rage, regret, fury, and despair. Each one simultaneously meshed together then separated; it was overwhelming. I silently turned and walked to our bedroom with him following closely behind.
“Leave me alone,” I said. “You should go.”
“What?” he said.
I walked past him and reached into the closet. “Here. Take your suitcase, put some of your stuff in here, and get out. I’m going to pack up all my things. I don’t need you hovering over me.” I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I envisioned breaking into a full sprint, running for my car, escaping the madness and misery, but once I was gone, I never wanted to come back to this place. So, I kept my cool. I said, “This is your condo, not mine. You live here, and I don’t anymore.”
He only crossed his arms and stood motionless. I threw his suitcase on the bed and started grabbing random things off the floor. Tears filled my eyes as he watched, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I grabbed his laundry basket, dumped it into his suitcase, zipped it up and thrust it at him.
“Here! Call your girlfriend. Maybe you can stay with her for a while.”
“Sember, don’t you think you’re overreacting a little. Come on,” he said with a sigh.
“I have absolutely nothing to say to you. Get. Out!”
“You know what—fine! You obviously need some time to cool off, but this isn’t over,” he said, arrogantly tossing his head back. He casually slipped on his shoes and walked out the door. As soon as the door clicked, I fell to my knees and began sobbing.