(Welcome to week four of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapter One, Chapter Two or Chapter Three, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Four. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, an overdue confrontation.)
Center City, Philadelphia. Monday. 9 PM. Hungover. Buried deep beneath the weight of everything I’ve learned; consumed by the immeasurable impact it will have on my life moving forward.
Reality is setting in, and with it comes all the pain, anger and resentment I’ve been trying to avoid for the better part of two days, or perhaps even 10 years.
A million questions come boiling to the surface – questions about child custody, the estate, the marriage and its assets, questions about friendship and love and trust and all the other superlatives that make a less-than-average life worth living.
Questions arise about Monty Miggs and Laura Lee.
Questions arise about our children, Tommy and Sara.
Questions arise about who I should tell, when and how.
Will Laura and I still be invited to the same parties? Will we need to discuss which one of us should move out of the house? Will we need to rehearse a plausible cover story so one of us doesn’t contradict the other? Will Laura keep my last name? Will I need a lawyer? How would I even go about finding a lawyer? Will I be able to afford the fallout from this divorce? Will every future holiday be ruined for Tommy and Sara? Will every future holiday be ruined for Laura and I? Will we be one of those divorced couples that constantly uses their kids to get back at each other? Will I have to get a new car insurance policy? Health insurance policy? A new cell phone plan? An iron?
Why do I feel like such an asshole when Laura’s the one who fucked up?
Why does my entire life feel like one big fuck-you today?
Regardless of the why, the reality is my life does feel like one big fuck-you today. It feels like fuck this and fuck that and fuck Laura fucking Lee and fuck Monty fucking Miggs and fuck every other fucking thing on the fucking planet, for that matter. It feels as if I need to shut out or shut down – to put off or postpone – as much of my life as humanly possible.
My priorities are my children and my sanity, in that order.
And I feel as if I’m already losing the battle for both.
I am sitting at the dining room table in our house when Laura comes home from work on Tuesday afternoon. I can hear the ticking of the clock, can count the minutes as they pass, can feel the bursts of adrenaline as they rise and fall in my gut. I am anxious and scared and prepared, and the only thing that keeps me anchored in reality is the notion that I’ll only have to do this one time.
At least I hope I only have to do this one time.
It is 5:04 PM EST when I hear the double-beep of Laura’s car alarm on the driveway.
The tumblers of our front door click and turn. The door swings open, followed by the sharp tap of heels on marble and the shuffling of mail.
“Jesus Christ!” Laura says, putting her hand to her chest as she enters the kitchen. “You scared the shit out of me. Where on earth have you been?” Then leaning forward to peer into the living room, “Where on earth are the kids?”
“The kids are fine,” I say. “I asked the sitter to take them out for a while.”
“Did you tell them anything?” Laura asks, crossing her arms.
“I told them mommy was busy fucking Uncle Monty, but she’d definitely be home in time for dinner,” I say, leaning back on the chair’s hind legs.
“Fuck you,” Laura says, tossing our mail onto the dining room table.
“Fuck me?” I say, sharp and secure. “Fuck you. Fuck all of this.”
“Do you think this is easy for me?” Laura says, leaning down to loosen the ankle straps on her heels.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” I say. “I think you can take that victim mentality bullshit and shove it straight up your ass. I think you have no fucking perception what ‘not easy’ really means. I think you’ve fucked up our entire marriage, not to mention the lives of our children. And I think it’s entirely up to you to figure out how you’re going to make that right. That’s what I think.”
“I fucked up our marriage?” Laura says, pointing to herself. “I fucked up our marriage? You know, Bobby Lee, I have no idea what type of pie-in-the-sky world you’ve been living in, lo, these past two presidential terms, but allow me to put things in perspective – this marriage has been on life support for the past six to eight years … perhaps even longer. And while you may consider what happened between Montgomery and I some type of ultimate betrayal, the reality is it’s a miracle something like this hadn’t happened a whole lot sooner.
“I mean, look at yourself,” Laura continues, hovering directly across the table from me. “Most days you’re already half in the bag by the time I get home from work. You spend more time locked in that goddamned basement than you do with your own children, and for the past half decade, sex with you feels more like a flu shot … I just shut my eyes and clinch, and hope that’ll be it until next winter rolls around. You’re 37-fucking-years old, Bobby! And it’s like you’ve completely given up. You’re not the guy I met 14 years ago. You’re not even a shadow of that guy. I look at you and I see a hollow, empty vessel of a man … an empty vessel, completely lost at sea.”
“I wrote a best-selling novel,” I say, defiantly.
“You wrote a best-selling novel that got published six months before the two of us even met,” Laura shoots back, slamming her palm down on the table so hard it rattles the chandelier above us. “I mean, sure, the fact that you were so young and successful … They were both major selling points back then. Why wouldn’t they be? There was a time when you could make me dream, Bobby Lee. There was a time when I’d look at you and think, ‘Man, oh man, now there’s a guy who’s got the world on a string.’ You were so full of promise and ambition. You were the only person I knew who’d accomplished more in his early twenties than most people would in their entire lives. And stupid me, I thought the whole thing was just an opening act. You could’ve had so much more. You could’ve been so much more. We could’ve been so much more. But instead you decided to throw it all away because some asshole with a checkbook came along and handed you a ticket out. That best-selling novel … That best-selling novel might have been the worst fucking thing that ever happened to you, Bobby Lee – you, or us.”
“That best-selling novel is the only reason you’re standing here right now,” I say, pressing my index finger into the table. “Before you go making yourself out the patron saint of this relationship, you may want to consider whose motives are more fucked up – the faithful husband who provides for his wife and kids, or the pearl-diving wench who fucks her husband’s best friend in a desperate attempt for validation.”
“Best friend?” Laura says, sitting down in the chair across from me. “Some best friend. You forget: I’ve heard all the shit you say about Montgomery behind his back … and now he has too. That’s part of your problem, Bobby. You treat the most important people in your life like Astroturf, then expect them to roll over and thank you for it.”
“Oh, right,” I say, wheeling around to stand behind my chair. “And how does that make me any different from you?”
“You have no idea how guilty I feel about what happened with Montgomery,” Laura says, looking down at the table. “It’s wrong … I’m wrong, and I know it. I can’t imagine what this must be like for you. I can’t imagine what it’s going to do to the kids. I know this is probably going to be the defining moment of their childhood. I know they’ll probably resent me for the rest of their lives. And if they do, I’ll know that I deserved it. I know I should’ve just asked for a divorce five years ago instead of letting this whole miserable thing drag out the way it has. But all the sadness and self-loathing in the world won’t change the fact that this is where we are now, Bobby. There’s nothing either of us can do to change that, as much as we might want to. The best we can do is figure out what to do moving forward, so our kids don’t end up half as fucked up as we are.”
“Tommy and Sara are the only reason I’m standing here right now,” I say, leaning back against the china closet. “That and the fact that we need to be clear about whether this marriage is officially over. Once that’s settled, we can start to negotiate how the rest of it shakes out.”
I am unable to look Laura in the eye as I say this. Despite everything the two of us have been through, and all of the reasons our marriage needs to end ASAP, the actual words – or even the mere suggestion of them – do not come any easier.
“And how exactly do you think things should shake out?” Laura says, with all the crass cynicism of a schoolhouse nun.
“Actually, I thought we might have another yard sale,” I say, shrugging my shoulders.
“Fuck you,” Laura says.
She is sobbing now, turning her head to avoid eye contact.
“No, seriously,” I say. “We’ll just lay all the furniture and appliances out on the front lawn again. Only this time, we’ll dust off the kids and toss them out there as well. Let the neighbors decide what the going rate on a matching girl-and-boy set is these days. Hopefully, that’ll give you and your new manfriend a little nest egg to build off of.”
“Don’t you dare bring Montgomery into this,” Laura says. “He has nothing …”
“Montgomery?” I say, cutting Laura short. “Who the fuck is Montgomery? Montgomery sounds like a guy who feeds pigeons in the park.”
“You know what?” Laura says. “I no longer have to tolerate your bullshit. You want the right to see your kids, fine … We can work that out. But if your point in coming here today was to get me to admit that this marriage is officially over … Well, then, it’s over. Happy now?”
“The right to see my kids?” I say, ignoring Laura’s last comment. “You’re the one who fucked up here, not me. If you think it makes sense for our kids to grow up in a house where their mother’s fucking the weird uncle who isn’t really an uncle at all, you’ve lost your fucking marbles. You want to start drawing battle lines, you can draw the first one right there.”
“You’re pathetic, you know that?” Laura says, standing up to deliver the words with slashing vitriol. “You want to push this, go ahead. But if it ends up in court, I’ll go public with everything … and I mean everything. By the time I’m done, not only will you have lost any chance you ever had to be a part of your children’s lives, but no publisher in his right mind will ever take you on as a client again. You’ll sputter through midlife alone and desperate, collecting stamps and watching infomercials like some sort of post-menopausal shut-in. Is that what you want? Cause it can definitely be arranged. Just say the word.”
“This is exactly what I was hoping to avoid,” I say, grabbing my keys off of the dining room table. “I’m going to pick the kids up at the park. I’ll have them back by dark … I just want to let them know I won’t be seeing them again until the weekend.”
“Where will you be in the meantime?” Laura says, arms crossed.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” I call back, as I walk toward the front door, “but I’m staying at my parents’ old apartment in the city. I’ll be back on Saturday morning to take Tommy to soccer practice. Between now and then, I’ll call every night to talk to them … And they can always call to talk to me.”
As I go to open the front door, I can see Laura’s reflection in the plate-glass facade.
She is standing still and silent, a framed silhouette in the background.
She does not say goodbye. She does not have to.
We’ve already established that Laura Lee no longer has to tolerate my bullshit.
I take Tommy and Sara for ice cream because ice cream is how grown ups overcompensate.
“Where have you been?” Tommy asks, after we order.
“I got a last-minute offer to speak at a conference,” I say.
“So why were you sleeping in the backyard Sunday morning?” Tommy asks, without the least hint of sarcasm.
“I got back early and I didn’t want to wake your mother,” I say, realizing my answer makes about as much sense as ketchup on a candy corn.
Tommy stares at me, slow and hard. He takes a bite of his sugar cone.
He says nothing.
This is how eight-year-olds call bullshit.
Tommy and Sara both know something is amiss. They’re fishing now, like two detectives, looking for clues to a crime they’re not quite sure has been committed.
“Has Uncle Monty been helping your mother while I’ve been away?” I say, intent on doing some fishing of my own.
“He keeps coming over all the time,” Sara says.
“He’s weird,” Tommy adds.
“How so?” I ask.
“He has a thing about pronouns,” Tommy says, between licks. “Like, he came over on Sunday, and mom asked me to go into the living room and tell him dinner was ready. So I walked in and said, ‘She wants me to tell you dinner’s ready.’ And Uncle Monty said, like, all serious, ‘And who is she?’”
I laugh when Tommy tells me this. I cannot help it. It sounds so fucking colonial.
“I asked him what he meant,” Tommy continues, “and he said, ‘We don’t refer to your mother as she in this house.’ That’s weird, right?”
It is weird. I know it’s weird. Tommy knows it’s weird. Sara knows it’s weird, although you’d never be able to tell by the way she’s smearing cookies n cream all over her face. In fact, it’s so weird that I find it difficult to keep my emotions in check.
If Miggs wants to violate my wife, I suppose I can learn to live with that … I mean, he is and I am.
But I draw the line at him trying to turn my kids into conservative dweebs.
“Try to be nice to Uncle Monty,” I say, against my better judgment.
“Why?” Tommy asks.
“Because we’re all having a rough go of it, one way or another,” I say. “You need to show people a certain degree of compassion.”
“Even if they’re being weird?” Tommy asks.
“Especially if they’re being weird,” I say.
“Why?” Tommy asks a second time.
“Because anybody can be normal,” I say.