Authors: Claire Lombardo
“You know, I’m remembering now that he said he’d bring it home for me. When you get to be a trillion years old and married for half that, you’ll notice things start to slip. Cognitively.”
Gillian laughed, and it bothered her, even though she’d been the one to make the joke, because, again, she wasn’t
much older than Gillian; her husband wasn’t coming home each night to a withered crone; she still had energy and verve and a sense of humor, and even if she had
of those things, she’d produced and raised his children and made him coffee in the mornings and had the decency not to
“I was lying,” Marilyn said bluntly.
“I didn’t need something from his office. I came here to talk to you. I lied.”
“To me?” Gillian frowned. “Should we— Do you want to go in my office? Is everything okay?”
“I know about you and David,” she said. “I know that you’ve been—seeing each other.”
Gillian looked suddenly smaller. “Oh, Marilyn, I—”
“I’m not accusing you of anything. I just came to talk to you about it. I don’t want to anymore, but I—I guess I thought, initially, that maybe you’d be able to tell me more. Because he’s not telling me anything. This is so inappropriate. I feel like such a—fool.”
“It’s not—what you think,” Gillian said.
“Oh? What do I think?”
“Nothing’s…” Gillian pulled the door shut. “I know it’s a chaotic time for you guys.”
“Ah, yes, well.” She waved a hand. “The steady accretion of years.”
“You have a lot going on.”
“What do you— Has he—
Gillian looked uncomfortable.
“Right,” Marilyn said brusquely. “Confidentiality. I’m not a patient anymore.”
“David’s not my patient; he’s my friend.”
“Look, Marilyn, I’d prefer to not—” Gillian’s face grew redder by the second; her voice wobbled. “I’m just saying David knows where the lines are. If I’ve learned anything from talking to him, it’s that. He—”
don’t need to hear reassurance from you that my husband loves me.” She pulled her coat more closely around her and started toward the door.
“I wasn’t going to tell you that. I was just going to say that he’s a good man.”
Marilyn stopped. “I know he is.”
She supposed that was part of the problem. Her husband
a good man. It was hard to get mad at him. And perhaps it was this—the anticlimax of it all—that frustrated her so much. He hadn’t had a traditional affair. She’d confronted first him and then his alleged mistress and both had sincerely denied it. But what they weren’t denying was their closeness, the fact that David had actively chosen to spend hours and hours of his limited time with another woman, to confide in someone else his worries and observations. She felt—as she had three years ago, crying in the exam room—so far from him. She could identify that as the problem—not just the distance but the fact that it had grown so much since then, that it was so much more dire than it had been—and there was nothing she could do about it.
“I’m sorry, Marilyn,” Gillian said. “I confess I’ve always envied you. But I also really like you.”
The perfect ridiculousness of all this, to be debasing herself for no real reason, to have arrived at this point in her marriage.
“Listen, if you could not— I mean, I can’t stop you from— I’m embarrassed, Gillian; I’m mortified by all of this, and if you could not mention to him that we had this conversation, I’d—”
“Of course I won’t,” Gillian said.
“I owe you my life,” she said. “Literally. I realize that. And I’ll always be grateful to you for that. But I need you to stay away from my husband. I don’t—” She opened her mouth, closed it again. “There’s more to it than me.”
t was Sunday, and David was home when Marilyn left to go into the city, mowing the lawn in the backyard while Gracie played on the swing set. She came out to say goodbye and found Grace at the top of the slide by herself and immediately dropped her purse and sprinted across the lawn, David oblivious to his surroundings beneath the roar of the mower.
“Honey, what’d we say about no climbing when you’re alone?” she asked, breathless.
“Daddy’s here,” Grace said, smiling at her, ignorant or impish; she had a hard time telling with her youngest daughter: she was either an evil genius or the exact opposite.
“David,” she said, but he didn’t hear her. He kept walking away from her, finishing his row, and it wasn’t until he got to the end and turned around that he saw her staring at him. He turned off the mower and waited for the motor to die.
“Something wrong?” he asked, and she gestured at Grace. “What? I’m ten feet away.”
“She’s too little to be on the swing set alone.”
“No I’m not,” Grace chimed in from behind her.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” David said.
“You need to be watching her. I have to
David; your dad’s expecting me.”
too little,” Grace protested, a quickening in her voice, a tearful breathlessness, and she swung boldly from the bar at the top of the slide, making Marilyn physically convulse.
“Gracie, get down. This second. The right way. On your bottom. Feet first.”
“You’re turning this into a
” David said. Grace was now crying in earnest, the telltale signs of a tantrum oozing into her little limbs—stiff arms, an indignant stomp of a sneakered foot. She
turned it into a scene; she’d found them enjoying a pleasant afternoon in the yard together and she’d come out and ruined it. But when she saw Gracie, alone, at the top of the slide, her head had immediately morphed into a flip-book of gruesome injuries. She couldn’t set foot in a hospital again, not anytime soon. There was a time when David would have understood this. But now she’d taken a stance and she had to follow through; all of the parenting books she’d read over the years drove this home. Be firm in your punishments. Don’t back down. Don’t let your spouse undermine you, even when he is being a childish asshole.
Grace slid despondently down the orange slide, weeping; it would have been funny if Marilyn had been in the mood.
“Honey, come here,” she said, but her daughter ran instead to her father. David stooped to pick her up and Grace buried herself in his threadbare polo shirt.
“Thanks for this,” David said sarcastically, looking at her over Grace’s head.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” she said. “I’m leaving. I don’t know how late I’ll be. She needs a bath after dinner tonight.”
” Grace wailed into David’s chest, kicking her legs.
She felt suddenly jealous of her daughter for her position in David’s arms. When she touched Grace’s back, her daughter stiffened, crowed anew. She flicked her eyes up to David.
“Bye,” he said, and she thought it might have hurt her too much to reply, so she didn’t.
A home health nurse cared for David’s dad three times a week, but Marilyn had been spending her Sundays puttering around his house and making him dinner. In Richard’s living room, she thought of how much she seemed to annoy David lately, of how he had moved fluidly from guilt and attempts at redemption to this kind of perpetual disdain for her. He hadn’t looked at her like that since they lived in Iowa City, when they had the first three girls and were both constantly exhausted and embittered and within arm’s length of both a baby and two small children. At least then it made sense; at least then they commiserated, once the kids were in bed. At the house in Albany Park, she was hot and irritable. She held her ponytail away from her neck. She’d just helped Richard with his washing-up and he’d requested a recess before they dove into their requisite marathon of Scrabble. He was in his armchair with his eyes closed and she decided, feeling her own fatigue settle over her like a fog, to rest as well. She hadn’t been sleeping much lately. And David was working more. She knew his evenings with Gillian had ceased but in their stead he had picked up extra clinic hours in earnest, as if to karmically atone.
“Rich?” she asked, lifting the material of her shirt and dropping it, creating a breeze. She was going to ask him for something about David as a little kid, some story that might awaken some tenderness within her. She paused. “Never mind.”
“Sure. Fine.” She felt tears in her eyes but blinked them away.
“You have so many wonderful qualities, Marilyn, but you’re a worthless liar.”
She laughed, felt one of the tears snake its way down her cheek.
“My son’s treating you well, isn’t he?”
“Of course.” She hadn’t told anyone about her distance from him, about Gillian. David’s father would hardly be the appropriate audience, but she indulged the thought:
Your son’s found himself a girlfriend. Your son’s a philistine
. She pictured Richard cuffing David on the side of his head, telling him to pull it together. “Rough patch,” she allowed herself to say.
“How’s Wendy doing?” Richard asked.
“Oh. She’s—” She studied him and tugged a few times at her ponytail. If David were here she would say something blithe and noncommittal about her passable grades or her renewed interest in literature. David was decidedly not here, though; David was at home bonding with their three-year-old, who she hoped would have already forgotten that she hated her mother just like Wendy did. “Her weight’s up. Her spirits are—not quite as up. She’s pretty miserable at school, I think, but possibly less so than she is at home. We’re keeping her to a curfew because I think if she didn’t go out we’d all lose our minds, and I have no idea what she’s
when she’s out but at least she comes home. She’s just—existentially unhappy, I think is the problem, and I’m not sure what to do with that, so I’m just trying to make sure that I don’t make her
unhappy, which is hard because she hates me, but overall she—she’s doing better than she was.”
“I’m sure she doesn’t hate you.”
Unable to look at him, she said, “I would place your bets elsewhere, Rich.”
“God, if those girls had any idea how lucky they are to have you as a mom.”
“That’s kind of you to say.”
He shifted stiffly and cleared his throat. “I should tell you she’s been coming here.”
She glanced up, uncomprehending. “Pardon?”
“She comes here sometimes.”
“She comes here? Like,
“She showed up once after she got out of the hospital. And she’s just kept coming. We talk. We play Scrabble. She’s almost as good as you.”
She studied him.
“Okay, not almost as good. But not terrible. She’s a formidable opponent.”
“I’m sorry, Rich, I— Wendy, we’re talking about?”
“I think she’s needed a place that wasn’t home. Don’t we all need that sometimes?”
She was going to counter with something about how she herself had never been afforded such a respite, but she supposed that her own visits to Richard’s were not entirely altruistic. It was a place where she could go without her children; it was a place where she could go to help her father-in-law that had the convenient side perk of giving her the upper hand with her husband. It was a place where she could be alone and adult.
“I suppose so,” she said. “How does she get here?”
“Takes the train,” Richard said. “Green to Brown.”
“What does she— What do you talk about?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Anything. Little things. Her classes. The dog. You.”
“You and David. Historical stuff. She calls it her ‘origin story,’ I’m assuming because of that new-agey socialist school you’re sending her to.”
She smiled at that. “It’s a public high school, Rich.”
“I was telling her the other day about the first time I met you. How shocked I was that my son had happened upon such a knockout.”
“Well, obviously,” she said, blushing.
“How you saved him. You can’t know how relieved I was when he found you.”
“We found each other,” she said. She felt dangerously close to crying. She looked away, but his gaze was so persistent that she finally met his eyes.
“David’s a good man,” Richard said. “But he’s as flawed as the rest of us. He has good intentions but he doesn’t always do the right thing. None of us do. If you’re unhappy with him, Marilyn, you should talk to him.”
“That doesn’t work if he’s not talking back.” It was the closest she would ever come to betraying him.
“I was telling Wendy about those two
sitting at my kitchen table that first time you came over. You were both so young. He didn’t take his eyes off you the entire night.”
Her throat throbbed. “Rich, really, this is sweet of you to mention but—”
“He’s lucky to have you, and he knows it more than he knows anything in the world, and sometimes you just have to remind him. I think you owe it to yourself. If you’re even one-tenth as miserable as you look, sweetheart, you’ve got some real problems.”
“I’m not—” she started to say, but she stopped, because she was.
y the end of May, Wendy had lost all of her acquaintances and all of the acquaintances had acquired coveted slots in incoming freshman classes. She had refused to participate in the collegiate rat race, and her parents had stayed quiet about it until one afternoon when she came home and her mother was sitting on the front steps. She hoisted her backpack higher on her shoulder and turned up her headphones, preparing to walk straight past her.
Her mother held up a hand to stop her. “Hi,” she said. “Have a minute?”
“You’re a second-semester senior,” said her mom. “High school is behind you. Your homework is pointless. Aren’t you the one supposed to be making these arguments?”
Just when she’d decided to hate her mother forever, she made a joke like this.
“I know you despise me,” her mom said lightly, and the easiness of her tone pierced Wendy through the ribs. “But please just sit for a couple of minutes. I want to talk to you.”