My Wife’s Last Lover
THE NIGHT I WALKED OUT, MELISSA AND I HAD A FIGHT over who used up the milk. It was not a serious fight, but the kind between couples who’ve been together years and stifle smiles as they trade nasty, go-for-the-jugular attacks. Long-term relationships teach you the game element in an argument, its wicked, irrepressible sense of play.
“Soup was a nice idea,” she said about the cream of mushroom soup I had made. From scratch, I might add. “So now we’re out of milk.” She prodded the container with her flute. “Barely one, tiny, little sip. Count on it, pal.”
This was a congenial, though shrewdly aimed, stab at me for using up the milk. Not for herself, mind you, but for the children. It gave her the moral authority to work into a froth of righteous indignation.
“Like you always have to use so much? And leave a teeny, teeny drop? You don’t know what breakfast’s like, here, in this house?”
“We have two children sleeping upstairs, you know,” I said, feigning distress at her rising voice but really incensed at the reminder that I always served breakfast. “So I made a lot of soup. Well excuuuuuuse me!”
“I’m afraid we can always use food to eat,” she said, yielding a smidgen of credit, but mostly scolding herself for not doing more.
“I thought what I left was enough. You used some too, you know.”
She slapped the flute on her palm and rocked, as if to music. She began shaking her head, half in disgust, half in time to a melody I knew she had secretly started humming. She was next to the stove in my flannel shirt. I loved her in my shirts; if I hugged her all hostility would dissolve, but I just couldn’t.
She surveyed the kitchen and spied a shred of sautéed onion from my soup pot that had fused to the burner. She scraped it off with the register key. It drove me crazy when she used her flute like this.
“No big deal,” she said, scraping viciously.
“But you think it is.”
“We do have two children. As you just had to remind me. I get back and find this waiting for me. After that, I come home to this!”
WITH THE FLUTE SHE CARVED OUT A SECTION ABOVE THE STOVE, to hold the horrors she had come home to. The mouthpiece paused over the milk. She tugged the refrigerator open, grabbed the milk, and slid it in. Her hand turned a graceful arc before the door slammed shut. The gesture, as glorious as swinging the flute, revealed how light the container was, and how negligent I had been. Both accusations were far too subtle for me to nail her on them.
“By that you mean Boston?”
“By that I definitely mean Boston.”
She tucked the mouthpiece under her lower lip and blew a whistling toot. It irked me, it seemed intended to, but it was nothing next to her mood. Even when I picked her up at the airport she was in her zombie state. (If I said this to her face it would blow the argument into the stratosphere, as would any suggestion that, heaven forbid, a mood might be related to menstruation.) In her zombie state Melissa’s dark eyes take on a haunted look. She moons about, dead to everyone, tormenting my life with only the energy to criticize. Even her annoyance at petty slights (like using up the milk) becomes part of a vast solar system of grief, where a thousand troubled planets revolve around my inability to take proper care of her, of the children, of myself. I found this mood most devastating, with its hellish absence of emotion.
“Don’t think you can just forget and I’ll run out,” she said, emphasizing the word “forget” to mean I might pretend to forget, something she insisted I did. But her mood was softening when she said, once again, “Count on it, pal.”
WE HAD JOKED WITH THIS EXPRESSION FOR YEARS. Even the children used it, like a Weil family language. Melissa was signaling she wanted to rouse herself from her zombie state. The flute became a magic wand, to lure dust off the toaster, then a back-scratcher, to dig under the flannel shirt. She guided it down between her shoulder blades, twirled it so the keys would scrape her skin. She thrust out her chest and squinted her eyes; she gave off an icy eroticism that took my breath away.
“Bos-ston was one big bum-mer.”
She spoke in clipped syllables, which she often did in this mood.
“My pro-gram? From hell. Tru-ly. From. Hell.”
In Boston she coordinated a gala dinner concert, the culmination of an elaborate fund-raising campaign. My wife, star flutist, Juilliard graduate, gifted soloist and wind ensemble performer, had in adulthood become a virtuoso fund-raiser for symphony orchestras.
“The dishwasher has to be emptied,” she said in her drained and lifeless zombie voice. “And someone has to load the dishes in the sink.”
I had learned over the years to understand simple instructions like these, and hauled open the door. A bubble of heat burst in my face and dampness soaked my eyelids. Few actions better express the Sisyphean nature of family life than emptying a dishwasher and then immediately reloading it. Once, back in the Village, I awoke to find Melissa sitting on the bed in my flannel shirt, practicing silently. Her fingers were whirling so fast they blurred, making airy, hollow pops on springing metal keys. Her eyes were closed. Her head was bent. It was the first time she ever wore any clothing of mine.
“Was Barry Alter there?” I asked. “In Boston?”
“He’s in Europe, I told you. Left this humongous mess in my lap!”
She was suddenly incandescent with rage, lips quivering, cheeks on fire, throat blood-red and throbbing.
Another piece of goddamn evidence.
“You’re getting one percent fat-free milk,” she said, voice still shaking. “Half gallon, no plastic. They won’t let us recycle it yet. You want cardboard. It’ll be there. If you look you’ll find it.”
If you look you’ll find it!
IT WAS THE MOMENT I HAD BEEN WAITING FOR. So much was on my mind that night. I was feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, at the end of my rope, and I desperately needed to talk about it. But I was in a modern marriage, with a modern woman, meaning my wife was also feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, at the end of her rope, and desperately needed to talk about it. The real subject of all our spats was always who needed attention more.
At first I had taken it for a typical mid-life crisis. I was, by external standards, a great success, an editor at the New York Times, an author of best-selling books. Yet I flirted with suicide, even planned faking my death. Finally it came to me that it was my identity, not my life, that I wished to obliterate. Whenever I got into a long-term relationship with a woman I felt myself take on a new identity, at least in my own eyes. I wanted to cast off that new identity and revert to what I once was, before marriage, children, and my comfortable suburban life (we had moved from Greenwich Village to a merrily misshapen Victorian with a wrap-around porch in Montclair, New Jersey) which was impossible to complain about.
“I’m perfectly willing to go,” I said.
I would be reasonable and accommodating to the end. I had, after all, crafted a plan. It called for me to slip out and take the number 66 bus to Manhattan, as I did every day to the Times. I had learned that buses leave the Port Authority terminal for invisible cities in New England and upstate New York. I’d hide out and begin a new life, if that’s not too grandiose a way to put it. In time, on walks through town with the kids, I’d worked out the fine points, like my letter. It was only fair to let Melissa know I had not been murdered or anything. It was crucial she understand I had chosen to go.
I am physically all right. I just need to be alone for a while.
I am truly sorry.
“Sooner’s better,” Melissa said, scratching her back with the flute again. She shoved out her chest, too. There was definitely a swagger in how she did it, flinging back her shoulders and drawing a breath, eyes narrowed.
“Don’t forget money, like you did that last time.”
Don’t forget money!
But I was in control. The letter was in my coat, stuffed there in our last argument, which had been over whether to cut down a tree in the yard. It was surprisingly bitter, as our arguments often were on the practical matters neither of us cared much about.
“I’ll get my coat and go,” I said. “Right now.”
My heart was pounding. I was scared to death, but I had to do it.
I took a last look at her. She was lovely, with her dark, haunted eyes inspecting the flute and her body in the edgy posture of a woman who has always known she’s attractive but has never been sure how to handle it. Her beauty allowed me to throw on my coat, open the door, and walk outside.
In the chill of the car I eased down the driveway. Gears bit evenly as I shifted (our Volvo station wagon had stick shift; she had wanted automatic, but I’d insisted on manual). When I hit the street the engine yanked me forward like a locomotive with so much power it was beyond my control to stop it. I was being hauled along not only through space but also through time, Yes, I wanted to break through time, to stop time, because so much had happened. I was forty-four years old and it was the last month of 1990. That was impossible: my age, the year. I couldn’t really gripe about my life, but I kept thinking, This is my life. I hadn’t felt on the brink like this in years. I was filled with panic, a sweet, giddy, terrifying panic. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.
THE CAR OF COURSE BELONGED TO HER, and it would wrong to to take it. My life was mine, and I had the freedom to go; my possessions were hers. The equation was elegant and I welcomed it. I backed the Volvo up the driveway (near the street, how she liked it) and walked to Valley Road. I had left everything in its proper place. My soup was divided into containers, dated, stashed in the freezer. A luscious whole-wheat onion bread I baked the day before lay frozen beside it. I debated picking up milk (one percent fat-free, half-gallon, no plastic) to leave in the refrigerator. I toyed with getting the wrong kind, on purpose, a childish impulse, I admit. I stopped dead in my tracks, furious at Melissa all over again. Her damn zombie mood! Her scratching her back with the flute! That swagger in how she moves!
With anger now goading me on, I strode down the street, not worrying about right or wrong, just what I wanted, which was to do something (this I thought with the gushy intonation of women’s magazines) for me!