A continuation of last week’s story –
I’ve put myself together in record time, and he broods in silence as we drive the short distance to his company Christmas party. It is at one of the most popular restaurants in our small town, although I’ve never actually been there before. “She’ll be so worried because she hasn’t heard from you in ten minutes,” I say. “There’s still a payphone in the lobby of the drugstore. Do you want a quarter so you can check in?” He ignores me. I am smugly relishing having him to myself. Their reconnection is inevitable. Funny thing is, she knows he hits me. Everybody knows. She just doesn’t think he’ll hit her. I’m the one on the block who everybody used to pity, but now they just hate. After a woman stays long enough with an abusive man, particularly if there are children, she ceases to have the support and compassion and becomes the scapegoat. It’s her fault for not leaving, and in that way, the abuser gets a free pass. These observations are running through my sore head as the lights to his company car cut through a grainy winter sleet.
He seems lost without his connection to the outside word. It’s not just her he needs. It’s all of the flying monkeys who vie for his attention and approval, his secretary in particular. Her actual job title is administrative assistant, but my mother is an administrative assistant. This bitch is a secretary. If you help your boss conceal his affair, that act makes you a secretary. I study my reflection in the darkened window, as he slows and pulls along the curb to park. He waits impatiently as I painfully unfold myself from the passenger seat and teeter to his side. He allows me to hold his arm as we walk up the street, and I lean my face into his suit jacket. I close my eyes and lose myself in the feel of the clean, soft wool.
He pats his pocket in search of his Blackberry, and I snicker to myself as he has a split second of panic remembering the tragic loss anew. The shaking of my body against his makes him aware of my amusement. I tilt my head up to study his face. He has always been unreadable at these times. In the early days of our marriage, when it began to be clear that there were parts of him I would never be allowed to know, I would search desperately for clues to who he was. I would scavenge his pockets for the notes he would write to himself, crumpled business cards, anything I could find of his life that he so jealously guarded.
The connection between us has always been purely physical, and I know he resented the way that he needed me from the very beginning. He doesn’t like to feel that he needs anything from anybody, and he tried to stay away from me. I was living in the city, busting my ass scrubbing out new houses for construction companies, making good money. His family made it clear to him that I was white trash. He was young and handsome and educated, and could have come home with somebody they approved of, but he could not stay away from me. I was unaware of any special power I had over him. I believed him to be in love with me as I was with him. I know now that there is no love in him for me, nor is it likely that there ever was, but his want of me is still there. I can feel him tensing up and my body knows to be ready when he pulls me to him and thrusts his hands into my hair. I curl my arms around his waist and allow the moment to anesthetize me. We stand there, in the middle of the sidewalk, bits of sleet stinging the tops of my ears while he kisses my forehead. In that moment I feel that we are invincible; an institution, often shaken, but ultimately indestructible. I hear the whisper of tires through the sleet and as a car approaches us, his body jerks upright and he shoves me crudely away from him. For a moment, I am confused, until I recognize the narrow slits glaring at us from the windshield of the dented minivan. It’s too late, I rejoice to myself. She’s seen him hugging me, and better still, seen his guilty reaction at being found out.
He has been taking off his wedding ring when he leaves in the morning, and putting it back on before he comes in at night. He keeps it in the console of his car when he is at work and also, I would imagine, during his long lunches at the Comfort Inn in Massillon. The other week, I used his spare car key to take it and bring it home, and although it is still hidden in my underwear drawer, he has replaced it with one that is identical. I wonder if he knows I took it? He’s wearing it tonight, to keep up appearances, I notice. For fifteen years, I have seen him as mine, but that was an illusion. The coldness surrounds me as I stand, separate from him on the pavement. Droplets of ice float in the beam of the streetlamp. I stand here, illuminated by its radiance, and with a sudden flash of clarity, I realize that I do not want to spend the rest of my life with someone who doesn’t kiss me on the mouth.
My hair is collecting sleet that is slowly melting into my scalp. The wind has sobered me, and I’m steady on my pegged heels. He studies me as I survey the empty street. I’m not going to go to his stupid party. Beyond this, I don’t know, but tonight will not be wasted listening to his secretary talk about how she’s painted a piece of barn siding to look like the American Flag. “I’m sick of waiting for you to make up your fucking mind,” I say. “Just don’t come home tonight.” He has denied me the advantage of being able to interpret his reactions for our entire marriage, and now he is true to form with a curt nod. I hold out my hand to him and he places his keys in the cup of my palm. “You can pick up your car afterward,” I say, and as I turn and walk away, I think of Lot’s wife, and I don’t look back. I can feel the emptiness behind me, and I know he is already gone.